Only Macron Can Save Europe, Says Macron

The French president’s interventions in European politics have only magnified his many flaws.

French President Emmanuel Macron addresses students at the North Rhine-Westphalia technical university in Aachen, western Germany, on May 10. (LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron addresses students at the North Rhine-Westphalia technical university in Aachen, western Germany, on May 10. (LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2017, the planets aligned perfectly for Emmanuel Macron to ascend France’s presidency. Weakened by internal fissures, the mainstream political parties had nominated candidates who were either corrupt (the center-right Les Républicains’ François Fillon) or colorless (the Socialists’ Benoît Hamon). The collapse of their respective campaigns allowed Macron and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, to face off in the second round of voting. Confronted with this stark choice between a liberal Europeanist on the one side and an authoritarian nationalist on the other, French voters handed the young and untested Macron an overwhelming victory.

Macron drew some political lessons from his unusual campaign—unfortunately, they seem to be the wrong ones. Over the past year and a half, the French president has treated the circumstances of his election as an affirmation of his prowess and providence, rather than a humbling indication of good fortune. That’s nowhere more apparent than in his early intervention in next year’s European Parliament elections. The man who has referred to himself as Jupiter insists, despite political realities to the contrary, that the planets are realigning in a way that will lead his forces of light to victory against the forces of darkness.

In retrospect, it’s remarkable how long Macron’s divine self-deception has held. During his first year in office, Macron took his victory as a mandate to overhaul core elements to France’s État providence, or welfare state. Most notably, and to the chagrin of labor unions that sought to block him, Macron succeeded in ramming through the French Parliament a series of laws liberalizing the labor market. Less successful, as his critics have since pointed out, have been the results. France’s economy remains stagnant, with growth forecast to fall from 2.3 to 1.7 percent. At the same time, the dire unemployment rate, after an initial dip, has again started to rise, from 9.2 to 9.4 percent.

Compounding the bleak economic news was a series of political stumbles, scandals, and slammed doors. In July, Le Monde revealed, video footage in hand, that Macron’s chief bodyguard, Alexandre Benalla, had devoted his day off to pummeling participants in a May 1 protest march. In response, Macron’s office announced that it had suspended Benalla for 15 days. With a straight face, the official spokesperson added that this represented the heaviest sanction ever suffered by an Élysée staffer. Scorched by a blaze of criticism, the Élysée quickly reversed course by firing Benalla and charging him with assault. Tellingly, Macron has refused to address the affair, leaving the public to puzzle over his curiously complacent response to his bodyguard’s behavior.

Still reeling from the Benalla affair, the Élysée received another body blow in August, when Nicolas Hulot resigned as the environment minister. A Gallic version of Al Gore, Hulot was one of France’s most popular figures, whose presence in the government lent it green credibility with the French left. Repeatedly stymied in his efforts to implement his chief policy goals, an exasperated Hulot finally quit, without warning, in August. Caught flat-footed, Macron replaced Hulot with François de Rugy, a pallid politician who, unlike Hulot, sports ties and comports himself as a pragmatist.

The cabinet was rocked by yet another tremor this month, when the powerful interior minister, Gérard Collomb, also resigned. The official reason—that the crusty Socialist wanted to run for election to his old post as mayor of Lyon—was as flimsy as an undercooked crepe. It was well known that Collomb—one of the first Socialist ténors, or heavyweights, to rally to Macron’s La République En Marche—had since soured on the president’s Jovian turn. In a radio interview early last month, he pointedly lamented the “lack of humility” shown by the country’s leaders. A few weeks later, in an interview with the newspaper La Dépêche, Collomb made his discontent even clearer. “There are not many of us left who can still speak to [Macron],” Collomb said. More ominously, he warned that if “everyone bows to Macron, he will end up isolated.”

Though Macron was aware of Collomb’s plans to resign, he nevertheless needed two weeks to settle on a replacement. This week, he announced the appointment of the former Socialist politician Christophe Castaner. That Castaner has no obvious qualification for the sensitive post, apart from being an early supporter of Macron, should be a source of worry for the French. Perhaps a greater source of worry for Macron, however, is that the two-week delay reflected a power struggle between the Élysée and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. Seen as a figure of stability in an increasingly rickety government, Philippe, who had abandoned Les Républicains to become prime minister, pushed for a conservative replacement for Collomb. Though Philippe finally ceded to the choice of Castaner, he also succeeded in revealing that the ballyhooed “verticality” that Macron tried to impose on the government was becoming more horizontal by the day.

The run of ministerial resignations and self-inflicted conflagrations has taken a tremendous toll on Macron’s popularity. An Ifop poll in late August revealed that, after slipping on the Benalla peel he dropped on the floor, Macron’s favorability rating had dropped to 34 percent. In the wake of Hulot’s departure, Macron took another hit, sliding to 29 percent in an Ifop poll taken in September. While pollsters have yet to take the nation’s pulse following Collomb’s resignation, and the following two-week hiatus, Macron clearly anticipated the worst. On Tuesday night, he made an unprecedented televised address to the nation, declaring that he had “heard the criticism” leveled at his presidency. “Due to my intensity or frankness,” he declared, “I have, on occasion, shocked or upset some of you.” At the same time, though, he warned against the “reappearance of old practices, the poison of instability and division” and vowed that while he might change his tone, he would not change his goals.

After the address, an Elabe poll revealed that 65 percent of respondents found Macron’s mea culpa insincere and more than 70 percent believed that his government was neither listening to nor capable of unifying the nation. This suggests why Macron is now looking to recreate the Manichaean confrontation between himself and Le Pen but supersizing it to European dimensions as a means to salvage his presidency. Rather than taking aim at Le Pen, Macron has now set his crosshairs on Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, and Italy’s deputy prime minister (and interior minister), Matteo Salvini. These men, who represent the rising forces of illiberalism and populism in Europe, and who have fed the fires of xenophobia and racism, also represent a clear and present danger to the European Union’s principles of open borders, open markets, and open societies.

As a result, by taking up the nationalist and authoritarian gauntlet, Macron has won the applause of Europeanists. In August, upon learning that Orban and Salvini had criticized him, Macron replied: “If they want to see me as their principal opponent, they are right. I will cede nothing to the nationalists and their language of hate.” This was a deliberate echo of the profession of faith that he gave earlier this year in a speech to the European Parliament. To the gathered representatives, Macron presented the choice confronting the continent, between “those who want a Europe that neither proposes nor progresses and an ambitious and democratic Europe that reinvents the notion of sovereignty.”

It’s clear, of course, on which side Macron places himself, just as it’s clear there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his dedication to a united and liberal Europe. But there is also little reason to doubt that Macron already has his eyes on next May’s European elections. Taking place near the halfway mark of his five-year term, Macron rightly views the elections as pivotal, the moment where he can resuscitate his own fortunes along with the waning popularity of his party. All the more reason, then, to insist that Europe—and, of course, those French voters who somehow fail to appreciate him—faces the stark choice between him and bedlam. One of Macron’s critics, the Belgian ecologist Philippe Lamberts, remarked: “Macron needs demons like Orban and Salvini in order to stand out. They are the best kind of enemies because they feed off one another. By bipolarizing the debate, they have marginalized those who do not belong to either side.”

No less important, Macron’s effort to turn the elections into an existential either-or blurs certain realities. As a recent analysis in the newspaper Mediapart notes, a number of European democratic and progressive parties either collaborate with nationalist parties—as is the case with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who depends on the support of the separatist New Flemish Alliance—or for domestic reasons are reluctant to reinforce the powers of the EU. This is notably the case in the Netherlands, where Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a dedicated liberal, is nevertheless loath to place at risk the electoral quarantine he has, for now, imposed on Geert Wilders’s xenophobic Party for Freedom. No less importantly, insisting upon the division between liberalism and illiberalism obscures the inconvenient truth that a range of alternatives exists between these ideological poles. As the French Socialist Pierre Moscovici prudently noted, “Not all pro-Europeans have the same ideas.”

For now, though, Macron seems to have just one idea: recreate the same political scenario that brought him to power last year. Whether it’s the right idea, either for him or for France, remains to be seen.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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