The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, came to Washington, D.C., this week for a three-day state visit, his first to the US. In the Trump era, the youngest president in French history is seen by many as a savior whose election put a halt to the dangerous progress of right-wing populism in Western democracies, and who seems determined to stand against the tide of nationalism and illiberalism in Europe. In his own country, however, the man who broke the mold of French politics a year ago and proclaimed a profound “democratic revolution” has fallen far short of his promises. In his domestic political record, he seems much like any other French premier with orthodox, even conservative, policies.
On a winter day in early 2017, seven weeks before the presidential election, Macron had gathered his friends, prominent supporters, and four hundred French and foreign journalists in a fancy Parisian event center on the Champs-Elysées, two minutes away from the Elysée Palace where he now presides over France. At that time, Macron was still an unlikely favorite who was running a do-it-yourself campaign in an undecided race. The headlines were dominated by scandals. The French political landscape, with its twin poles of left and right, was exploding right before our eyes. After Brexit and Trump’s election in the US, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, had real hopes of becoming France’s next president.
Promising a “radical transformation,” Macron—this pure product of the French administrative and business elites—promised to “disrupt” France’s “stuck” political system and “free” the economy, while protecting the vulnerable. Without doubt, this former economic minister is a cultivated and literate person who quotes writers such as Victor Hugo and Jean Giono and philosophers like his mentor Paul Ricoeur. Many people were sold on Macron’s story, and his campaign made sophisticated use of political marketing techniques. Relatively unknown and notably youthful, he was, for many, a breath of fresh air among a slate of candidates who had been in politics for decades.
Covering the campaign for the news site Mediapart, I asked Macron that winter morning in Paris how a former investment banker supported by wealthy entrepreneurs could connect with the working and middle classes, how he could escape Le Pen’s characterization of him as a privileged “globalist.” Calling me “dear friend,” with evident irony, Macron denied being an “oligarch,” and accused me of “disseminating National Front arguments.” But he never really answered the question. A few weeks later, millions voted for him—in part to avoid the political nightmare of a National Front president— but millions of others didn’t bother to vote at all in the second round of the presidential election. A wave of apathy about any other political choice helped give Macron’s new party a dominant majority in elections for France’s National Assembly. Despite the extraordinary circumstances—the accident, almost—of his rise to power, Macron has never looked back.
While Macron is in Washington, don’t expect a showdown with Trump at the White House: Macron is polite and affable, observing all the codes of diplomacy. He knows perfectly well that it’s enough to stand next to Trump to look like the good guy in the room. A student of Machiavelli, Macron also knows how to turn Trump’s power to his own advantage. When the two first met at a NATO summit meeting soon after Macron’s victory, Macron forcefully returned and held Trump’s aggressive handshake—which the French media took as “proof” that their president would not be pushed around by the American. Days later, when Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the Paris climate deal, Macron trolled him with a video that played on Trump’s “Make American great again” campaign slogan and invited US climate researchers to France. Then he played host to Trump at the Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysées—a show that flattered the US president, and made him wish for his own.
When it comes to military maneuvers of a more consequential kind, Macron has taken credit for supplying some foreign policy coherence noticeably absent from the White House. Initially, Macron claimed that he personally had convinced Trump not to withdraw US troops prematurely from Syria. Although Macron had to walk that back after a firm White House denial, he has successfully presented himself as the central player in the Western alliance at a moment when other European leaders such as Theresa May and Angela Merkel are weakened and preoccupied with their domestic political problems.
What of Macron’s own domestic political problems? All the spin and PR aside, one year into his administration, Macron faces daunting unrest and discontent. Thus far, his proferred solutions to bring the much-vaunted “reform” that France needs have amounted to a familiar package of neoliberal policies that many countries, the US included, have tried and tested to destruction—triggering, as the economist Thomas Piketty has shown, a historic surge in economic inequality. Although Macron had promised to “listen to the citizens,” many French people have begun to lose faith in the idea that he has anything to offer besides the standard technocratic responses of the elites he is so familiar with.
He had pledged to borrow measures from both sides of the aisle, left and right, but on nearly every occasion of note, his “Third Way” has involved picking the conservative option. After reports of recurring police abuses against migrants camped outside Calais, Macron pushed through a harsh immigration law that has been criticized by France’s human rights watchdog for punishing asylum seekers and “giving precedence to a repressive logic over the most fundamental rights of foreigners.” He also failed to reprimand his minister of the Interior, the former mayor of Lyon Gérard Collomb, one of Macron’s earliest supporters, when Collomb talked about France being “flooded” by immigrants—a term frequently used by Marine Le Pen.
Two months before the fiftieth anniversary of May 1968 events in France, which began with a student uprising, the police appeared on campuses to clear students protesting against a reform that will radically alter access to public colleges and introduce selection for the first time. With a disproportionate use of force, police also recently evicted a group of ecological activists who had peacefully occupied an area of marshland in Brittany to protest against an airport project.
Macron promised a new world, but his economic prescriptions increasingly sound like the old Thatcherite medicine of “there is no alternative.” His government launched a wave of privatizations and cut taxes for the rich and for corporations—but without tackling the endemic tax evasion that deprives the state budget of tens of billions of euros a year. Many are now calling him the “president of the rich.” Macron has also begun a major overhaul of workers’ protections, executed through presidential orders, that even the most moderate labor union leaders describe as dangerous.
He has raised taxes for retirees and significantly reduced the scope of the social safety net he’d promised for laid-off employees, something that had been one of the most appealing items of his presidential platform. In a show of strength against workers on the public railways, a heavily unionized sector that has in the past led major strikes, Macron set out a reform program that had gone unmentioned during his campaign. Not surprisingly, his moves have provoked strikes that could soon easily snowball—given the restive mood of workers in hospitals, the civil service, and the private sector.
Macron’s very self-confidence, which may still seem admirable abroad, has in French eyes become almost indistinguishable from arrogance. What seemed transformative and hopeful about his message a year ago, the “benevolence” he hymned during his campaign, has fallen away; he now speaks and acts like a chief financial officer, and a stubborn one at that. Adopting well-worn conservative tropes, he has lashed out at the “lazy” people he wants to put “back to work”—although France’s main economic problem is a shortage of jobs, not French workers’ fecklessness or lack of productivity.
Emmanuel Macron loves to say he “speaks the truth,” but his truth seems more and more to center on contempt for dissent. Earlier this month, when he encountered a hospital nurse who complained about spending cuts, he accused her of uttering “stupidities.” And on TV recently, he lectured senior journalists, including Mediapart’s founder, Edwy Plenel, about their “fallacious arguments” and “intellectual dishonesty.”
As he sets foot in Trump’s America, Macron may appear a welcome contrast to the incivility and chaos that has marked this US administration. He is expert at presenting himself as a capable centrist and inspiring modernizer. Last week, before heading to the US, Macron appeared before the European Parliament in Strasbourg to warn against the rise of “illiberal democracies” in Europe, evoking the specter of “European civil war.” He denounced “authoritarian democracy,” but praised “the authority of democracy.” After his first year in office, the French are finding that the difference between these two concepts is sometimes very thin.