Why fate of Macron mat­ters to the world

French pres­i­dent will need to show that a fair, tol­er­ant, in­clu­sive demo­cratic pol­i­tics can help peo­ple

Gulf News - - The Views -

Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron will launch this week a three-month “great na­tional de­bate” on the fu­ture of France after pro­longed ‘yel­low vest’ anti-gov­ern­ment protests. The de­mon­stra­tions have badly weak­ened Macron and one of the key po­lit­i­cal ques­tions in 2019 is whether he can re­cover some of his for­mer sky-high pop­u­lar­ity.

The an­swer mat­ters not just 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 in his short pe­riod in of­fice. In­deed, the French pres­i­dent along­side his United States 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 cen­tre ground, which will con­tinue to play out in 2019.

Macron’s vic­tory in 2017 against Trump’s pre­ferred far­right Na­tional Front can­di­date Ma­rine Le Pen was so strik­ing as it de­fied the march of pop­ulism in nu­mer­ous coun­tries that had seen par­ties of the cen­tre ground some­times tak­ing a po­lit­i­cal bat­ter­ing. Macron’s win then ap­peared to rep­re­sent at least a par­tial turn­around in for­tunes — in Europe at least — for cen­tre 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 pro­gramme of eco­nomic re­forms. These changes were thrown into doubt after the pres­i­dent an­nounced in De­cem­ber that he has back­tracked on a fuel tax hike and gave bil­lions of pounds in aid to try to end the sev­eral weeks of protests. In his New Year ad­dress, Macron as­serted that the re­forms will con­tinue, and in­sisted that his gov­ern­ment “can do bet­ter” at im­prov­ing the lives of cit­i­zens across the na­tion. Yet, many yel­low vest pro­test­ers are call­ing for him to leave of­fice.

The anger was un­der­lined in a poll re­leased last week show­ing that 75 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion are un­happy with the way Macron is run­ning the coun­try. The sur­vey, for fran­ce­info and the Fi­garo news­pa­per, com­pares bleakly for Macron to one from April 2018 when ‘only’ 59 per cent of those sur­veyed were un­happy with the to gov­ern­ment, and that the top pri­or­ity for the French pop­u­lace is find­ing ways to boost con­sumer pur­chas­ing power.

The poll un­der­lines the volatil­ity of the po­lit­i­cal mood in France which, iron­i­cally, helped pro­pel Macron’s me­te­oric rise into power in 2017. It was this sim­i­lar anti-es­tab­lish­ment po­lit­i­cal sen­ti­ment that put the coun­try into un­charted ter­ri­tory by en­sur­ing Macron’s En Marche! party — which was only founded in April 2016 — could not just win the pres­i­dency, but also hand­somely win 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 favour 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 fu­elled by eco­nomic pain, which has seen the coun­try suf­fer years of dou­bledigit un­em­ploy­ment and also low growth which pre-date his pres­i­dency.

High ini­tial ex­pec­ta­tions

Part of the chal­lenge here for Macron, the youngest pres­i­dent in the six-decade-long French Fifth Repub­lic, has been the very high ini­tial ex­pec­ta­tions sur­round­ing his pres­i­dency. Here he will be acutely aware how early op­ti­mism dur­ing the last two pres­i­den­cies of Ni­co­las Sarkozy and Fran­cois Hol­lande fiz­zled out with both ul­ti­mately be­com­ing un­pop­u­lar one-term heads of state. In­deed, Hol­lande — who be­came the least pop­u­lar pres­i­dent since records be­gan — de­cided not to even seek re-elec­tion, the first in­cum­bent not to try for a sec­ond term in the Fifth Repub­lic.

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 cen­tre ground of­ten ben­e­fit from hav­ing an op­ti­mistic, for­ward­look­ing vi­sion for tack­ling com­plex, long-term pol­icy chal­lenges like tack­ling 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, firstorder chal­lenges in this con­text is a sig­nif­i­cant hur­dle that cen­trist politi­cians across much of the world are widely per­ceived to have failed on, help­ing give rise to per­cep­tions of a bro­ken po­lit­i­cal process. To get back on the front foot, Macron will need to skil­fully show again how a fair, tol­er­ant, in­clu­sive demo­cratic pol­i­tics can help over­come or ame­lio­rate the chal­lenges that many peo­ple are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing in a world chang­ing fast in the face of glob­al­i­sa­tion.

■ An­drew Ham­mond is an As­so­ci­ate at LSE IDEAS at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics.

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Ador T. Bus­ta­mante/ ©Gulf News

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