The standard for elected leaders in the free world has plummeted incredibly over the past year or so. In Britain, Theresa May has been hobbling since the General Election, surrounded by hyenas. Her speech at the Conservative Party conference almost received sympathy from all quarters, even as factions within the Tories move against her. Over the Pond, Donald Trump’s fan base has continued to shrink as he picks fights with Puerto Rico (in the wake of Acts of God), North Korea (as their nuclear arsenal expands) and Iran (as they stick to their agreement), whilst calling some white nationalists ‘good people’. No matter how you massage the facts, it’s clear that it’s not been the easy ride which he appeared to envision when it comes to ‘draining the swamp’.
But Emmanuel Macron – young, charismatic, pro-EU – looked like he might buck the trend. A former Minister of Economy and Finance with a maverick streak, his meteoric rise to take the Elysée (snatching it away from Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National) was the stuff of liberal dreams. Then, his party En Marche! – a mixture of veteran politicians and political neophytes drawn from across society – beat critics in legislative elections, crushing both the established parties and the Front National.
For Europhiles, this was welcome news, with suggestions that it meant that the populist groundswell which had overtaken the Anglo-American world was over. Whilst the Dutch elections in March had created a fractured political system (albeit one in which the far right candidate Geert Wilders was locked out of power sharing agreements), Macron’s victory was virtually complete. A fresh-faced figure – in spite of his past as a minister under an unpopular government – the prospects looked bright in May.
With the end of the year drawing near, it’s difficult not to imagine that those who were most enthusiastic about Macron might be feeling somewhat disappointed. His performance at a recent TV appearance seems to epitomise the mixture of bravado and arrogance for which he’s become well-known, with attacks on those who disagree with him bearing a somewhat disturbing resemblance to another president. Whilst Trump may have gone after the press more viciously (decrying them as liars in the pay of his enemies), Macron has taken a more contemptuous if equally dismissive route – his thoughts were ‘too complex’ for journalists, a spokesmen declared back in June. At a time when technocrats have come under routine attack, it seemed a remarkably bold approach.
That he made the television appearance at all was a sign that his complex thoughts had not translated into successful actions. His aims for a stronger Eurozone have been stymied by the German elections, which saw the once redoubtable Angela Merkel significantly reduced in stature, as the economic heart of the EU made a decisive shift towards the Eurosceptic right. At the same time, Macron has shown he’s just as keen to keep France’s interests at heart as any of his predecessors, angering other EU nations – he swooped in with the might of the French government to nationalise the STX shipyard, keeping it from Italian hands, much to Rome’s annoyance.
And worst of all, his attempts at labour reforms have largely stalled. His declaration that those opposing him were ‘slackers’ galvanised a popular movement against the former banker’s attempts to loosen regulations – although, as the Guardian notes, the numbers were bigger under Macron’s universally unpopular predecessor Francois Hollande. At a time when the French economy has been stagnant for years, it’s difficult to draw consolation from this latest turn of events.
In the bigger picture this is deeply distressing: Macron’s brand of centrism offered one of the few plausible antidotes to populism in Europe. Marine Le Pen may have lost out on the election this time, but the president’s mixture of aloofness combined with failures to enact policy suggest that the next time around, France might not be so lucky.