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The meaning of Macron | Financial Times


Emmanuel Macron is an easy man to hate. When I landed in France two years ago for my third stint in the country as a foreign correspondent, I was immediately struck by the passionate opposition he inspired, not only among angry gilets jaunes demonstrators marching on the National Assembly but even among his peers in the Paris intelligentsia. 

From the left, the president who wanted to be “neither right nor left” is mocked as a “president of the rich”, a former Rothschild banker who abolished the country’s wealth tax. From the right, he is scorned for failing to curb immigration and tackle crime. Over the Channel in the UK, he is often portrayed as a malevolent EU leader intent on making life miserable for Britain after Brexit. 

And there is one Macronian fault on which almost everyone seems to agree: arrogance and mépris, or contempt for ordinary people. Even his admirers in business and academia remark in private that France’s youngest president — he is still only 43 — can have a rather grating way of speaking. “Macron does have a tendency to lecture,” one senior banker told me at the annual gathering of economists and business leaders in Aix-en-Provence. “You can admire him without loving him.” 

It is now more than four years since Macron, who had held no previous elected office, crushed the old French parties of left and right. He promised a new style of liberal politics, launched a programme of economic reforms to revive the economy at home, and established himself as the west’s most prominent champion of democracy, multilateralism and the “rules-based international order” even as Donald Trump was trying to wreck all three and the UK was obsessed by Brexit.

‘Gilets jaunes’ protesters on Bastille Day, 2020, at Place de la République
‘Gilets jaunes’ protesters on Bastille Day, 2020, at Place de la République © Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

But the shine wore off quickly. First the motorists with their yellow safety vests took to the streets to complain about a green fuel tax and to vilify a president they saw as uncaring and remote. More recently the government scrabbled, like others, to find face masks and hospital beds to deal with the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. By the time La République en Marche, the fledgling party that swept Macron to power, was humiliatingly defeated in June’s regional elections, many of his detractors had convinced themselves that the man who wanted a “Jupiterian” presidency was headed for a fall and doomed to lose his battle for re-election next year.

Yet it is too soon to write off Macron. He is hardly the first French president to be hated by a large number of his fellow citizens, nor the first to face the fundamental contradictions in France’s relationship with its leaders: between the demand for revolutionary freedoms (Macron characteristically likened the gilets jaunes protests to the peasant jacqueries in the Middle Ages) and the desire for strong, even monarchical leadership in the Napoleonic mould. 

Macron was only four years old when I arrived in France in 1982 to work as a trainee reporter at Reuters, and in the decades that followed before he won the Elysée Palace, other presidents of left and right fought their own battles over terrorism, the economy and educational reform. I have lost count of the number of marches and mass protests I have witnessed on the streets of Paris, often punctuated by the burning of cars by demonstrators and baton charges of volleys of tear gas from the notoriously aggressive riot police.

At least since Charles de Gaulle with his famous hauteur, France has expected its presidents to incarnate a certain majesty, and those who do not, such as François Hollande — he vowed he would be a “normal” president — tend to fall out of favour.

Emmanuel Macron and a portrait of Charles de Gaulle at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises
Emmanuel Macron and a portrait of Charles de Gaulle at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises © Alamy

Perhaps it is because I was a junior reporter at the time, and a British one at that, but I found François Mitterrand in the 1980s to be especially distant and pompously presidential: this was a man who relished the finer things in French life, including eating the (now endangered) tiny songbirds called ortolan buntings with his head hidden under a napkin to capture the delicate flavours and aromas. 


His successor, Jacques Chirac, on the other hand, had an unfeigned bonhomie, and remained popular among the French until his death in 2019 despite a conviction for embezzlement when he was mayor of Paris; he preferred the more rustic pleasures of beer and tête de veau (calf’s head) and was celebrated as the only recent incumbent of the Elysée who genuinely relished the obligatory presidential visit to the annual Salon de l’Agriculture on the outskirts of Paris, complete with sausage-tasting and the tactile approval of prize bulls. But even he was hated by some. I was there on the Champs-Elysées on Bastille Day in 2002 when a far-right militant tried to kill him with a .22 rifle (but missed). 

So is Macron peculiarly hateful? He has certainly failed to convince the French that he understands them. Among his supposed offences: he insensitively told a gardener who complained about a lack of work that he could find him a job in a restaurant just by crossing the road; he declared that while some of the poor were doing the right thing to overcome their problems, others were just “messing around”; and he poured scorn on greens and conspiracy theorists for wanting to delay the rollout of 5G for telecoms, likening them to “Amish” who wanted to “go back to using oil lamps”. 

Small wonder, perhaps, that an eccentric 28-year-old royalist felt the need to slap Macron in the face during a walkabout in a town in the south of France in June, or that Brigitte Granville, a village mayor in Burgundy and author of What Ails France?, said the official photograph of the Olympian president in her office “with his fixed and icy gaze gives me cold sweats every time I set eyes on it”. 

For those who believe or want to believe that Macron is on his way out, the disastrous performance of his party in the recent regional elections is all the new evidence they need. The party won just 7 per cent of the vote, failed by a long way to win any region on the French mainland, and handed a comfortable victory to the incumbent Les Républicains on the centre-right and the Socialists on the left. 

Emmanuel Macron delivers the traditional Bastille Day speech in 2020
Emmanuel Macron delivers the traditional Bastille Day speech in 2020 © Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images

In fact, the regional elections were marred by a record low turnout and may prove to be of scant relevance for the presidential race, which in the French Fifth Republic is a battle between personalities rather than parties. The extreme-right, anti-immigration Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen, who is forecast to be Macron’s main rival for the Elysée next year, did much worse than expected and also failed to win a region. 

There are still nine months to go, and French presidential elections have been marked by extraordinary upsets over the past two decades. But recent polls suggest Macron is not so hated after all, or at least no more than other active politicians: he is twice as popular as his immediate predecessor, François Hollande, at the same time in his mandate and a long way ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy.

His recent address to the nation before Bastille Day making vaccination compulsory for health workers and all but compulsory for anyone else who wants to eat out or travel was his “best yet”, according to one of his acquaintances from before his time in politics. It prompted protests by thousands of “anti-vaxxers”, but also triggered a much greater rush for jabs by nearly 4m people seeking vaccinations for the first time.

The tone was human yet presidential and he used the occasion to lay the foundations for his 2022 re-election campaign by offering something for everyone: for the right, no new taxes and a focus on law and order; for the left, job creation and investment in industry.

If Macron does win a second term he would be the first French president since Chirac to do so, and the…


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