Macron’s Star Has Fallen Down to Earth

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The French presidential cycle goes something like this: euphoria, then disappointment — and then disillusionment, as the pace of reform slows down and popular unrest builds up. The violent clashes at this weekend’s protests show just how accelerated the decline can be once opposition takes root.

Emmanuel Macron was supposed to be different. He came to power in 2017 through a grass-roots movement that blew up the country’s traditional two-party establishment, put lots of first-time lawmakers in parliament, and had no pre-existing constituency to please beyond reforming France. For all his past credentials in finance and government, Macron genuinely offered something radical and new. He was cast as a political “UFO.”

Yet the UFO has fallen to Earth. Macron’s approval ratings during his first year-and-a-half in power have tumbled to below 30 percent from around 60 percent, at a similar speed to those of Nicolas Sarkozy — elected in 2007 to “break with the past” — and Socialist Francois Hollande, elected in 2012 as a mild-mannered Mr. Normal. Faith in Macron’s ability to fix France’s problems, even after several reform successes to his name and no significant union resistance, has slumped to a level of about 27 percent, one poll says.

Macron’s Star Has Fallen Down to Earth

There’s no doubt an economic angle to all this. The economy is slowing, and inflation is creeping higher thanks to the weaker euro and rising oil prices (though these are now falling). France’s budget deficit of close to 3 percent and a debt pile of almost 100 percent to GDP has forced a go-slow approach to cutting taxes. The current wave of protests — where demonstrators don yellow security vests, known as gilets jaunes — began over higher fuel taxes but have spread to encompass broader discontent. It’s instructive that the protests enjoy widespread public sympathy, unlike the union-led marches against railway reform earlier this year. Continued violence, however, may cost the movement some support.

The French system encourages unpopular presidents to dig in, and that’s what Macron is doing. With no midterm elections to speak of, a thumping majority in parliament, and a prime minister and cabinet there to absorb criticism, presidents invariably become coddled, isolated and keen to show strength. Macron last week said France was not a country that advanced in consensual baby steps, and its people tended to “rear up” and rebel in the face of change. He seems to see unpopularity as a kind of badge of honor. During the presidential campaign he might have been keen to speak to rural and suburban workers squeezed by fuel prices; now he seems unwilling to try.

This is a shame. Macron obviously feels he has a tactical advantage in playing for time. Oil prices are falling, which should feed through to the pump eventually, and several tax cuts benefiting households and businesses will take effect throughout the next year, according to Deutsche Bank economist Marc de Muizon. But political capital is being squandered by not addressing the deeper discontent of the protesters and those outside Macron’s support base of urban professionals. Rural voters see the fuel tax as symbolic of his imperious approach and disdain for the working classes. So far he’s done too little to dispel those concerns.

Macron’s campaign in 2017 talked up the redistributive potential of selling 10 billion euros’ ($11.34 billion) worth of state assets, saying it would rejuvenate parts of France gutted by the decline of manufacturing and ease the shift to clean energy. This is worth revisiting. A more explicit accountability of how green taxes are spent by the government would help people see the positives. None of this is especially easy for Macron, given his unpopularity and the recent resignation of popular Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot, which has left a big gap on his bench. But there are some potential opportunities to grasp here.

You could hardly accuse France of treating its people poorly: Its income distribution is more equal than in the U.S. or U.K., it has one of the highest levels of public spending in the OECD, and it boasts above-average public satisfaction in health-care, education and police services. But like many post-war societies, the French have aspirations that go beyond the material, as Sciences Po Grenoble’s Pierre Brechon notes, and that is where Macron is having trouble finding the right balance.

The broad direction of Macron’s reforms to make France more competitive and its state slightly less bloated is laudable. But France is barely at the halfway point, the economy is slowing, and more reforms are planned that could trigger yet more public unrest. If he is to rebuild confidence in his presidency and reforms, he’ll have to step down off the pedestal and again become the avid communicator he was on the campaign trail.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering finance and markets. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.