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How French president Macron looks to rediscover his mojo

French President Emmanuel Macron leaves after voting in the municipal elections of Pas-de-Calais. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The president prompts not much more than a Gallic shrug right now, says JASON WALSH. But France’s fractured political scene means it’s still all to play for.

He came from the right and seemed to symbolise politics meeting in the middle, but now he’s gone. Édouard Philippe is out as French prime minister.

As Philippe packed his bags at the Hôtel de Matignon the question was what was on the mind of his former boss, president Emmanuel Macron over at the Élysee Palace.

The split was reportedly not acrimonious and Macron was quick to praise the outgoing PM. Indeed, officially Philippe resigned – though there are doubts. His departure is interesting for two reasons: what he symbolised, and how he handled the coronavirus.

Philippe took a gamble in joining team Macron in the first place, resigning from the conservative Republican party and fusing with Macron’s movement (though never joining his La REM party).

Macron himself symbolised, however briefly, movement in the other direction: a former Socialist party minister, his left credentials were strained by the fact that he was an appointed rather than elected minister, had a long history in finance and because his best known act as a Socialist minister was to allow private bus routes.

Still, for a time their relationship seemed to point to, if not a left-right rapprochement, at least a new approach. So what has happened to it?

Throughout the pandemic the hitherto unpopular Philippe was a winner, and this caused tensions: lauded for their detail, his addresses to the nation were better received than his boss’s. Philippe’s popularity soared. Macron’s did not.

The judgement is unfair: both men did their job. One of the roles of the prime minister is to implement the detail the president decides on. In addition, it fell to Macron to cop to the country’s failures, such as the scarcity of protective equipment and testing kits. The fault of his government? Certainly. But also of its predecessors.

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Nevertheless, popularity is on Macron’s mind.

It may sound strange to readers of this newspaper, but in May a leader column in Le Monde claimed the president was jealous of Boris Johnson. Macron was ‘pale with envy’ at Johnson’s ‘insolent popularity’, it said. The tendency of the French press to print gossip is well known, but Le Monde is typically not among those considered scurrilous.

Johnson’s popularity, buoyed as he himself contracted the virus, has since flagged and he leads a county as divided as France – and far more obviously so. Yet Macron’s apparent envy is telling.

He is not yet a politician in deep trouble – as many say that Johnson now is.

Newly appointed prime minister Jean Castex during the transfer of power ceremony with departing Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in Paris. Picture: Getty Images – Credit: Getty Images

Neither especially popular nor spectacularly unpopular, Macron was both a beneficiary of the hollowing-out of the old parties and also the man who wielded the axe that chopped them down. Today, pollsters Ifop say his approval rating is stuck at around 30%.

Not great, but better than his predecessor, Socialist François Hollande who went down as the least popular head of state to not lose his head, polling just 4% at one point in 2016.

Since becoming president, Macron has faced challenges large and small: early protests and strikes fizzled, but the gilets jaunes spooked him enough to roll back on his diesel tax escalator, an environmental measure that punished already hard-hit rural France where jobs are scarce and often distant.

It also brought discussion of the vast and obvious gap between rich and poor – as well as the self-perpetuating nature of France’s elite, which not only runs contrary to the country’s republican rhetoric but to the founding principles of the institutions that now churn out elite cadre – into the streets. Then mass strikes hit home: in December public transport ground to a halt, leaving Paris eerily quiet, foreshadowing what was to come in the wake of the coronavirus.

The issue was pensions: Macron wanted to reform France’s complex job-based public schemes, but strikers said they fought long and hard for their pensions and would suffer if all workers were treated as an undifferentiated lump à la the UK.

As with the gilets jaunes, things turned violent as police clashed with strikers, including, in a PR disaster, firefighters.

Others remain restive: scientific researchers are threatening industrial action in the face of funding reform legislation and nurses – heroes and heroines of the pandemic – have picketed.

Having survived the pandemic – at least its first wave – Macron has spied an opportunity to shake the political etch-a-sketch clean.

At the beginning of France’s ‘lockdown’ Macron not only unveiled widespread state support for the economy that ran counter to his liberal programme, but announced that all reform was off the agenda.

So much for pension changes – and yet other reforms, such as research funding, which scientists say will increase precarity in an already precarious profession beset by short term contracts and poverty pay, were pushed through.

There are clues, though. New PM Jean Castex is also on the right, but unlike his free-marketeer predecessor Philippe, Castex is considered a ‘social Gaullist’. Something of a One Nation or perhaps even Red Tory, then.

Castex set out his stall in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche. Asked would he continue the government’s reforms, he said yes – and no.

The pre-pandemic reforms allowed France ‘to better hold its own in the world,’ he said, but things had changed.

Only ecology, the preservation of republicanism and law and order were sacrosanct.

‘The epidemic highlighted the urgent need to regain economic sovereignty and move towards a less inegalitarian society,’ he went on, adding it’s not so much a rupture from before as much as a recognition of the difficulties ahead.

Newspapers gushed that Castex was known as ‘Monsieur Déconfinement’ for his role in managing France’s exit from lockdown. Except he wasn’t. Castex wasn’t known as, to or by anyone except journalists and politics nerds, leading some to conclude Macron is taking the job for himself by appointing a figurehead.

Doubtless, Macron will again end up facing National Rally (formerly National Front) leader Marine Le Pen in the next presidential election in 2022. But with the threat of Islamist terrorism fading she is struggling to win new support.

This is interesting because while organised labour remains a staunch opponent of the Le Pen dynasty, former voters on the left, such as the gilets jaunes, should have proved fertile for her.

Indeed, many a foreign observer implied the protest movement was tilting fascist; it wasn’t, and in the end it simply ran out of steam, withering away having been taken over by the ‘black bloc’ recreational rioters of the youthful and university-educated far left. Observers have pointed out that you could see the change over time: the shape of the bodies massing on Paris changed, middle age spread giving way to urban slim.

Writing in his memoir Who Killed My Father?, novelist Édouard Louis argued that the likes of his Communist-voting parents didn’t become fascist but voted National Front because France abandoned them to destitution and mocked them for their situation.

The thesis should be familiar to readers in Britain and the United States, where at least enough former left voters turn right to sway elections, but it seems Le Pen has pushed her embrace of the working class as far as it can go.

The Socialists, meanwhile, remain in disarray, despite incumbent Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo being re-elected in what was widely seen as a personal vote, not an endorsement of her party. Her extensive renovation of Paris, particularly her distaste for cars, has proved controversial, but those most affected –poorer residents of Paris’s ring of suburbs – don’t get to vote for the mayor. Plenty of those living inside the périph (the orbital motorway that walls-in the dense but not particularly massive city) seem content to travel by foot, public transport, motorcycle, scooter, bicycle and, occasionally, unicycle.

The centre right party, the Republicans – less affected by Macron’s rise – has nonetheless struggled to define itself in the face of his reforms. Indeed, Philippe’s appointment – and that of his successor – seemed designed to wound the party, co-opting not only its policies but its people. The jailing for fraud of François Fillon, the party’s erstwhile presidential candidate, will have done little for morale either.

Come 2022 Macron will likely be campaigning in the face of recession. The entire world seems to be holding its breath, waiting for the pandemic’s final accounting, but for those not already laid off the effects are delayed. Macron seems to have sensed he still has everything to play for.

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