Is President Macron losing the plot? He had every reason to celebrate the first anniversary of his election as French President in May 2018. At that stage, his poll rankings were consistently better than those of his two immediate predecessors, Hollande and Sarkozy. Since then, however, things have not gone according to plan. In July 2018, the Benalla affair undermined, by association, the claim to ethical integrity and cast unwelcome light on the operation of Macron’s Elysée. After a highly mediatized summer break – peppered with minor controversies that are germane to the ‘peopleisation’ of the presidential office, such as Brigitte Macron’s ordering of a new swimming pool at the Bregançon residence – things began to disconnect in earnest. The lingering presence of the Benalla scandal competed with presidential hesitations, and ministerial resignations to disrupt the carefully-laid plans of the ‘disruptive President’ ( On Macron as a ‘disruptive president’, see Helen Drake’s blog in Political Quartely, 14th September 2018 ‘ Is France having a moment? Emmanuel Macron and the politics of disruption http://www.pqblog.org.uk/2018/09/is-france-having-moment-emmanuel-macron.html).
The Benalla scandal broke in mid-July 2018, when videos of Alexandre Benalla, one of President Macron’s key security advisors, were published by Le Monde, allegedly showing him roughing up a couple of protestors during the 1 May 2018 demonstrations in Paris. The scandal involved, inter alia, the then Interior Minister (Gérard Collomb), the Chief of the Paris Police force (Michel Delpuech), the Head of Macron’s own office (Patrick Stzroda) and some would argue Macron himself. It cast light on the malfunctioning of the security services under Macron and the willingness of his advisors to take the law into their own hands. The scandal was interpreted in the press as highly informative of Macron’s leadership style, based on the primacy of a network of personal loyalties, developed in the main during the 2017 presidential campaign, to the exclusion of professional and political influences from outside the inner circle. One immediate casualty of the Benalla scandal was the postponement of the constitutional reform initially announced for the summer of 2018.
While the Benalla scandal continues to disseminate its own form of poison (in the form of the Senate’s Committee of Inquiry, convoking leading figure to testify, including Benalla himself) Macron’s authority has been undermined by hesitations, resignations and diminishing popularity.
One of Macron’s core claims of the first year in office was to be the maitre des horloges, the timekeeper. President Macron has paid close attention to controlling the agenda and dictating the rhythm, of events. This capacity to control time has been called into question on several occasions since the end of the summer. The claim to exercise decisive, vertical leadership was challenged by the apparent hesitations over whether to go ahead with a ‘pay as you go’ system of withholding taxation at source. Planned during the Hollande presidency, this measure had been postponed for one year by Macron. After ten days or so of apparent hesitation by the President, Prime Minister Philippe confirmed in a televised interview in September that this measure would indeed be implemented. This episode might be interpreted as Macron making sure that the President is seen to be making the final decision (and of ensuring that the Finance ministry respect presidential orders), but the public effect was to cast doubt upon the firm, vertical leadership that had characterized the first year in office.
The sense of drift was aggravated by the October 2018 government re-shuffle, forced on a reluctant Macron by the resignation of Gérard Collomb, Interior minister, former mayor of Lyon and one of Macron’s earliest political sponsors. Coming on the heels of that of Nicolas Hulot, the charismatic Environment minister – who complained of losing out on most policy arbitrations – the Collomb resignation carried a body blow to Macron’s claim to control the rhythm and style of politics. In both cases, the resignations were made public via the media, at times of major inconvenience for the incumbent government. Hulot resigned shortly after President Macron had refused his resignation. Collomb began by making clear his preference to return to Lyon and compete for the townhall after the 2019 European elections, an unsustainable position that provoked public and private criticism and political controversy within the microcosm sometimes known as la Macronie. Collomb was one of the few politicians confident enough to ‘tell the truth’ in relation to Macron himself, accusing the President of ‘hubris’ in an interview published while he was still Interior minister.
Whether deliberately designed to damage Macron or not, Collomb’s resignation added to the sense of drift. The time taken to name a new government – in reality, just over ten days – was modest in relation to Belgian, Spanish, German or Italian examples, but seemed inordinately long to commentators of France’s permanent news programmes, as well as a press that has become surprisingly (excessively?) hostile to Macron. The long drawn out ministerial re-shuffle occasioned by Collomb’s resignation (on 4th October, only resolved with the announcement of the modified Philip 2 government on 16th October) ended with the predictable nomination of Macron loyalist Christophe Castaner as the new Interior Minister and minor movements elsewhere (the resignations of Francoise Nyssen as Culture Minister, for example). While those close to the Prime Minister insisted that the loyalty of Edouard Philipppe to Macron was not in question – that there was ‘not even the beginning of the cigarette paper between him and Macron’, in the celebrated expression – the time taken to create the new government might be interpreted in part as revealing a struggle for influence between the centre-Right around Philippe (pushing for the nomination of Gerard Darminin as Interior minister) and the Elysée, determined to retain as much control as possible over the process. The result was one of the longest episodes of reshuffle in the history of the Fifth Republic for an uncertain result.
At any rate, the polls continue to provide worrying reading for Macron: the Journal du Dimanche of 14th October suggested that Edouard Philippe might be emerging as a more trusted and popular politician than Macron himself. Such lèse-majesté challenges the unwritten rule that the Prime Minister must not overshadow the President in terms of popularity and might sow the seeds of presidential revenge. Finally, Macron’s personal style- whereby the injunction to ‘ tell the truth often takes the form of brutal one-liners – has blurred the cohesion of the political message. Thus, the impact of the publication of well-received health and anti-poverty plans was lessened by presidential phrases on the ‘mad amount of money’ spent on welfare and on the ‘easy’ availability of employment.
Emmanuel Macron is turning to the European level to ease his worries. The French President continues to benefit from considerable prestige in Brussels and elsewhere. His attempt to construct the forthcoming European election contest as one between progressives and conservatives is a way of attempting to Europeanize the successful recipe of the 2017 presidential elections in France. But such an enterprise is fraught with dangers, in Europe as well as in France. Experience suggests that European elections are second order elections fought on domestic issues (though they can have first order consequences). It is far from certain that electors will be willing to follow Macron in terms of advocating a ‘progressive’ Europe. Early polls suggest that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national (RN – formerly the Front national, FN) will be a formidable rival in 2019, possibly retaining its position as the first French party. Politicizing the European elections might prove counter-productive.
Macron can rely on two solid underlying reasons for optimism. First, is there really a political alternative? The France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon is embroiled with party funding scandals, as is Marine le Pen and the RN. The Socialists have just suffered a further split, as a group of left-wing senators and deputies around Senator Marie-Noelle Lienneman and Deputy Emmanuel Maurel has broken off to form a new party. The Republicans (les Républicains) are deeply divided on the leadership of Laurent Wauquiez. The RN is staging somewhat of a recovery, but memories of Marine Le Pen’s catastrophic performance in the debate with Macron in between the two rounds remain vivid. Second, the institutions of the Fifth Republic continue to provide a powerful base upon which to ensure a form of presidential ascendancy.