Debate: Has Macron Lost Control?

George Beglan and Louis Kill-Brown debate whether, two and a half years in, Emmanuel Macron is in over his head


Proposition – George Beglan

The Macron Government, led by the youngest President in the history of the Fifth Republic, has lost all control of events at home, never mind abroad. This outcome has long been anticipated; Emmanuel Carrere had his work translated into the Guardian in 2017, the year of Macron’s election, presenting this outcome as a possibility.  

The first proof of this is obvious: the ongoing protests by the gilet-jaunes. The most violent riots in 50 years, along with multiple accusations of police brutality, have dogged the Macron regime. It’s a piecemeal approach of patronising addresses and partial concessions demonstrate its greater obsession with its own image than a desire to return the capital to a normal state. I was, on an anecdotal note, in Paris for the New Year; one couldn’t help but notice smashed phoneboxes and graffiti littering every arrondissement, a fitting metaphor for and descriptor of the Macron Presidency. Furthermore at home, his plan to breathe life back into secularism has been so far just that, a plan and nothing more. 

The latest opinion polling still suggests poor results for Macron. Bloomberg has him pegged at 32%, YouGov at 29% and Kantar suggests a mere 25% approval rating heading into 2020. These results all stand lower than his own PM, Philippe. Given the majoritarian French electoral system of SV, one may expect this to punish him come the next election, especially with the continued march of Front Nationale in the East of France. In July 2017, his government passed a bill subject to numerous criticisms by human rights groups as infringing upon civil liberties, coming into effect in November of that year. Its provisions are due to expire at the end of this year; we shall see if the Macron government moves to extend them instead.  

This government ran on a platform of reducing corruption in French politics. Macron then only walked back from appointing his wife a position within his cabinet after a petition backed by 290,000 people was created online. Further, the Benalla Affair, and the failure of the government to refer the case to a public prosecutor, as it was obliged to do by the French criminal code, shows that its intention and practice in this regard is that of blatant hypocrites. This government’s internally contradictory policies continue into the realm of foreign policy – Macron claimed to embrace the open door policy of Merkel, whilst also supporting increased funding for Frontex.  

In short, the Macron government has hypocritically disregarded the very principles it ran on, and has accordingly failed at achieving the very objectives it supposedly set out to accomplish. It has no control of its own cabinet members, along with the national capital, as is inherent in such a shambolic administration. It should, and likely will be held to account for this by the electorate come the next French election.  

Opposition – Louis Kill-Brown

Macron. Hollande. Sarkozy. Giscard d’Estaing. Some might even point to De Gaulle. The lifecycle of a French President’s image follows a very recognisable pattern. Whenever we talk about Macron’s successes or failings it is helpful to keep that pattern in mind, as it helps us to appreciate the very particular—and problematic— context that France’s political culture represents. A brief glance at the previous two hundred years of French history will show a nation with a historical propensity for political hero worship. Ultimately, France’s tendency towards political hero-worship always proves to be incompatible with her disdain for authority. In the lifecycle of the average President, and in particular, for those who have advocated reform, a dramatic shift in public perception is almost the norm: once elected, the Napoléonesque champion of the people rapidly becomes the Louis XVI-style, ancien régime oppressor. In this sense, France is certainly not a normal country – but nor is Macron a normal President. However, we must separate the unimpressed perception of the French people with an impressive legislative reality. Even in the French Republic, as any baccalauréat history textbook will tell you, popularity and control are not the same. Macron may well have lost one, but he is far from losing the other – especially when compared to his recent predecessors. Take it from the astute Sciences Po himself: “Popularity isn’t my compass. Unless it can help one to act, to be understood… that’s what counts”. Reaping the fruits of his brief electoral popularity, he has acted: wealth taxes on France’s richest have been scrapped and labyrinthine labour regulations have been slashed. His impressive handling of Trump and his hard-line on Brexit have reminded people on both sides of the channel that France, now more than ever, is to be listened to and not forgotten. He may lack extensive quantifiable successes beyond this, but not-insignificant legislative change has continued steadily throughout his administration. Despite that, Macron’s lasting legacy will be a cultural one. The impact he will have on French political culture in the long-term is arguably the most significant of any President in contemporary French history. Quite simply, he has done what few other French leaders in recent times have dared to do: he has stood up to his people. And doubtless, in his own view, he has also stood up for the French people, in a way that few have before him. Regardless of your political opinions on the changes he has made, it is a fact that Macron has shifted the relationship between the people and their président. That relationship is unlikely to be the same again. He has not lost control, he has simply lost popularity. He has been successful furthering progress, just perhaps not in the way that many of us had expected. Yet, let there be no doubt, he has most likely been planning this seismic shift in political culture all along.

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