Honeymoon over for France's President Macron as popularity plummets

MICHEL EULER / POOL / AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a citizenship ceremony in Orleans, central France, on July 27, 2017.
5 min

After an incredibly quick rise to power and two and a half months in the Élysée Palace, French President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity ratings have slumped.


“In the process and function of democracy there is something missing, the figure of the king, whose death, I believe, fundamentally, the people did not want,” Macron said two years ago.

Alas, the elected head of state faces a more banal concern than the guillotine: a 10-point slump in his popularity ratings.

In this comment, Macron was making an important point. The President of France’s Fifth Republic – created by Charles de Gaulle in 1958 – is supposed to incarnate all of the majesty of monarchical heads of state. A part of the national malaise that parachuted the wunderkind Macron to power was the diminished grandeur of the Presidency.

'You have to play the game by which you've been elected'

Macron’s two predecessors, François Hollande – derisively nicknamed ‘Flanby’ after the trademark French caramel dessert, with approval ratings at 4 percent towards the end of his presidency – and Nicolas ‘Bling-Bling’ Sarkozy, were broadly perceived as sorely lacking the stature (figuratively as well as literally) of de Gaulle.

Leader of the Free French during the Second World War over a decade before occupying the Élysée Palace, de Gaulle constituted the ultimate "homme providential" – the strong, charismatic leader to solve France’s problems.

'Jupiterian President'

Most significantly, like de Gaulle in the 1950s, Macron has successfully exploited France’s disillusionment with the political parties on offer by creating a new political movement centred around his agenda.

Nevertheless, Macron’s 54 percent approval rating – two points lower than Hollande’s at the same time in his Presidency – suggests France’s voters are disillusioned. The self-declared “Jupiterian” President – referring to Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods – has made some unpopular moves in his first months at the Élysée.

Macron’s programme of €13 billion of local government cuts – €3 billion more than promised during his campaign – has outraged mayors across France.

Other details of his overarching agenda of €60 billion of cuts by 2022 have caused similar vexation, including Macron’s cancellation of over €300 million of education funding – which one union leader described to Le Monde newspaper as “unprecedented”. Macron’s proposed cuts have even provoked anger in the military – hitherto so discreet that the French call it "la grande muette" (“the great and silent”).

General Pierre de Villiers, the head of the armed forces, resigned on July 19, saying that Macron’s budget measures would make him unable to “guarantee” the “protection of France”.

Many see Macron’s response to de Villiers as a troubling display of pique. Left-wing newspaper Libération – hardly a natural ally of France’s military establishment – described it as a “little authoritarian fit”, which shows that Macron “needs to grow up a bit”.

His decision to avoid the President’s traditional Bastille Day press conference because his “complex thoughts” might be too much for journalists was just the most comical example of this. Many analysts say Macron is too aloof with the media. “You have to play the game by which you were elected,” Alexis Poulin Co-Editor of Le Monde Moderne magazine, told FRANCE 24.

The French President has, however, made an impression on the international stage – for example, his bone-shaking handshake of US President Donald Trump and constructive engagement with Russian President Vladimir Putin both went down well at home and abroad.

Nevertheless, this month Macron has created controversy in foreign policy too. At this month’s G20 summit he referred to Africa’s “civilisational” problems, including that of women “having seven or eight children” (the continent’s average birth rate is in fact closer to five).

In an important continent for France’s geopolitical interests, Macron’s comments carried uncomfortable resonances of the "mission civilisatrice" of imperial France (the “civilising mission” of making colonial subjects like the French). They also echoed the notorious moment in 2007 when Sarkozy told a Senegalese audience that the problem with Africa is that the “African has not entered into history”.

Meanwhile, Macron's efforts to resolve Libya’s political crisis failed to include Italy – the traditional European intermediary with the North African state – unnecessarily offending an important EU partner.

At least Macron’s domestic programme of cuts accords with his promises to reform France. But many argue that Macron has broken with this agenda this week by nationalising the STX shipyard. Some see that as an example of protectionism that has stifled France’s economic dynamism – although others regard it as a pragmatic move to save jobs.

With his La République En March (LREM) party holding 350 out of 477 seats in France’s National Assembly, Macron is in a good position to get his agenda through the legislature. And the Macron narrative is still that of the youthful, liberal reformer who has – astoundingly – taken France’s Presidency in his first elected role.

But France’s two-round electoral system had always presented an overly optimistic image for Macron’s liberal cheerleaders. After all, in the first round of this year’s presidential election, 49.5% of voters plumped for extreme candidates, Macron’s diametric opposites on both left and right.

In light of this, the 10-point poll drop shows that the “Jupiterian President” cannot afford to be complacent.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning