France’s Samuel Umtiti celebrates with teammates after scoring his side’s opening goal during the semifinal match between France and Belgium. (Source: PTI)

France’s World Cup Run Won’t Help Macron’s Score


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The French may be naturally prone to pessimism, but the election of Emmanuel Macron as president a year ago ushered in a certain giddiness about the future. While you wouldn’t know it from the frenzy around France’s bid to win the World Cup, that wave of optimism has given way to a more familiar pathos and a sense that yet another French president is enjoying the trappings of office a little too much. 

The question for Macron is whether he can get voters to suspend their disbelief long enough for his program to deliver results.

According to the pollster Ipsos, 70 percent of French people think that France is in decline. That's the same level as a year ago; but the proportion that thinks this decline is irreversible has risen to 24 percent, up four points from last year. In 2017, 53 percent thought the future of France was full of opportunity and new possibilities; that has fallen by 9 points one year later, and by 29 points among socialists. Confidence in the French president has fallen by 10 points, at 34 percent.

The French elected a globalizing leader and rejected the xenophobia of Marine Le Pen. But it’s worth remembering that among his voters two-thirds indicated they chose him more by default than out of a belief in his ideas, according to pollster BVA. More than half of French voters still see globalization as a threat rather than an opportunity; 59 percent think that France should protect itself more from the world, up six points from the year before.

Although France is a fairly egalitarian country, inequalities between rich and poor are seen as excessive, and a further source of tensions and divisions. The French see their society as increasingly divided -- between different religions, and between immigrants and natives.

Macron doesn’t like the word “reform”; he prefers to talk about transforming France and has always said his changes will take time. But most French don't think they will benefit and the country is divided on what the goal should be: 48 percent think the priority should be to preserve the country as it is against a changing world, while 52 percent (17 points less than in May 2017) think the priority should be to adapt France to a changing world.

There is no question of the public abandoning Macron entirely at this stage the way they did his predecessor Francois Hollande. Whatever they may think of his prospects, there is no other politician of similar stature. But Macron will have to show results on employment and other fronts if he wants to be given more time by those who gave him the benefit of the doubt in May 2017.

The coming months will be all the more complicated for his party, La Republique En Marche, since the reforms ahead are particularly divisive in the French population. Although opinion is clearly in favor of slashing public spending, nobody agrees on where to implement the cuts, which are required if he is to make France's budget targets. Moreover, Macron has promised to reform the benefits model, in order to make it more effective in combating poverty and encouraging employment. As the French are deeply attached to their generous system of social security, these changes could prove difficult -- even the right has always lacked the courage to make changes in this field.

Macron will also have to defend his pro-European stance. Many French are frustrated by the inability of the EU to solve the migrant crisis; Italy's elections have shown that the populist insurrection has legs. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, weaker now than she was, may not prove the partner Macron needs to deliver the broader EU reforms he promised.

Perhaps worst of all for his public image, Macron has increasingly seemed like a Marie Antoinette character, asking for sacrifices while spending lavishly on new china for the Elysee Palace and a new swimming pool for his country residence. The French want their president to be dignified in office, but as Nicolas Sarkozy quickly learned, they do not readily indulge vanity or arrogance.

Of course, the French are distracted by their World Cup athletes preparing for a final in Russia right now. If France wins the World Cup, Macron can bask briefly in the reflected glory of a team, many of whose players come from immigrant families, which came top in a sport that unites French of all backgrounds. But he'll need to score a few goals of his own, and soon, if the feel-good factor is going to turn into more enduring support.

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