By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
A new poll suggests that 75 percent of French people are unhappy with the way President Emmanuel Macron is running the country. This underlines the fact that he has been weakened by the so-called “yellow vest” demonstrations, and the key question in 2019 will be whether he can recover some of his formerly sky-high political popularity.
The answer matters not only to France but also Europe and the world at large, given that Macron has emerged as perhaps the most authoritative defender of the liberal international order during his short period in office. Indeed, the French president and his US counterpart Donald Trump currently embody, more than any other democratic leaders, the present “battle” in international relations between an apparently rising populist tide and the liberal center ground. It is a conflict that will continue to play out in 2019.
Macron’s victory in 2017 against Trump’s preferred far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen was so striking because it defied the march of populism in numerous countries that had caused parties of the left and center ground sometimes to take a political battering. Macron’s win appeared to represent at least a partial turnaround in fortunes — in Europe at least — for center-ground politics.
From the perspective of French domestic politics, a critical question for Macron in 2019 will be whether the yellow vest protests have extinguished his program of economic reforms. These changes were thrown into doubt after the president announced in December that he had backtracked on a fuel tax hike and gave billions of pounds in aid in an attempt to end several weeks of protests.
In his New Year address, Macron said that the reforms will continue, while admitting that his government “can do better” at improving the lives of citizens across the nation. Yet, many yellow vest protesters are still angry and continue to call for him to leave office.
Last week’s poll compares bleakly for Macron with one from April 2018 when “only” 59 percent of those surveyed were unhappy with the government. The most recent poll also found that the top priority for the French populace is finding ways to boost consumer purchasing power.
The poll, and the continuing protests, underline the volatility of the political mood in France which, ironically, helped propel Macron’s meteoric rise to power in 2017. It was this similar anti-establishment political sentiment that moved the country into uncharted territory by ensuring his En Marche! party — which was only founded in April 2016 — not only won the presidency, but also handsomely won the legislative ballots with one of the biggest majorities since former president Charles de Gaulle’s 1968 landslide victory.
In this continuing volatile context, the outlook is highly uncertain for the remainder of Macron’s presidency. Although a majority of voters decided to favor hope (Macron) over anger (Le Pen) in 2017, the tide could potentially now turn decisively against him if he fails to address the anti-establishment anger, fueled by economic pain caused by the country suffering years of double-digit unemployment and also low growth, which pre-dates his presidency.
Part of the challenge here for Macron, the youngest president in the six-decade history of the French Fifth Republic, has been the very high initial expectations surrounding his presidency. He will be acutely aware how early optimism during the preceding presidencies of Nicholas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande fizzled out, with both ultimately becoming unpopular, single-term heads of state. Indeed, Hollande — who became the least popular president since records began — decided not even to seek re-election, the first incumbent not to try for a second term in the Fifth Republic.
The stakes in play are so high because given voter discontent with the Republicans and the Socialists, if Macron fails with his political program the primary beneficiaries of popular discontent about him might well be extreme, anti-establishment figures such as Le Pen. Although comprehensively beaten by Macron in 2016, she nonetheless secured more than 40 percent of the vote and is young enough to run, potentially, in several more presidential elections.
To regain the political initiative in this context, and become a powerful contender for a second term of office, Macron needs to rebuild public confidence in his policy agenda. During his election campaign, he showed that politicians of the liberal center ground often benefit from having an optimistic, forward-looking vision for tackling complex, long-term policy challenges such as stagnant living standards, and re-engaging people with the political process, to help build public confidence around solutions to them.
Tackling such tough-to-solve, first-order challenges in this context is a significant hurdle that centrist politicians across much of the world are widely perceived to have failed on, which has helped to give rise to perceptions of a broken political process.
To get back on the front foot, Macron will need to skillfully show again how fair, tolerant, inclusive democratic politics can help overcome or ameliorate the challenges that many people are experiencing in a world that is changing fast in the face of globalization.
- Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics