Emmanuel Macron hopes to reinvent himself in 100 days

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Dpray his The first bold bid for the presidency of France, in 2017, Emmanuel Macron used to mock supporters at campaign rallies who jeered when he looked at his rivals. “Don’t whisper to them; we will beat them!” the 39-year-old candidate urged the crowd with a smile, adapting a slogan borrowed from the high priest of political favoritism, America’s Barack Obama. French politics, Mr. Macron said forcefully then, needed kindness and collective effort not obstructive division. It was time to move a humble, rebellious country to a more stable, harmonious place.

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Six years later, France appears to be in crisis. The French are once again inflamed with revolutionary fury and are convinced that the country is run by an anti-democratic establishment bent on destroying the foundations of everything the French consider. Opponents trade in a declinist pattern chaos. The grotesque images of the president’s head in a nose, or burning bins on the cobbled streets of Paris, glorify violent revolution. On May 1 an armored policeman was set on fire with a Molotov cocktail. This was the low level of the 13th one-day strike against Mr Macron’s small decision to raise the minimum pension age from 62 years to 64, which is now law. Petrol bombing troublemakers represent a small minority. But 63% of the French want to keep up the fight against the new law, and 72% say they are unhappy with Mr Macron as their president.

The latest instrument of choice for activists is more prosaic, but no less symbolic: the saucepan. A few years ago the boys boys (yellow jackets) adopted fluorescent high visibility jackets to anger those who felt invisible and ignored by the president. This time, platform activists casseroles, or picnics banging pots and pans, to be unhappy because he didn’t listen. Saucepan strikes were popular in the 1830s among Republicans opposed to Louis-Philippe’s rule, and it did not end well for him. The cacophony of metallic banging today may not drive Mr Macron from his palace. But the message is strong: if the president won’t listen to us, we’ll make sure we don’t hear what he has to say. Mr Macron has given himself 100 days to do a small tour of France, to talk to people and try to re-establish his leadership. The casseroles put out his voice.

Take a step back, and there is something very strange about a society that has so much going for it working in so little fuss about so little. France has a strong, redistributive welfare state, high levels of social spending, falling unemployment, long vacations, world-leading corporate brands, a healthy stock market, a thriving tech sector, inflation lower and stronger economic growth than Germany. Every evening, images of real war and real hardship on the European continent are brought into his living rooms. But France has turned raising the pension age to 64 into a national psychodrama. Never mind the coming upheaval in artificial intelligence, or quantum computing, or the worrying level of southern Europe’s water table. France is heading to the barricades to fight the battles of yesterday. And his re-elected president is portrayed, suddenly, as an autocrat for having gone ahead and done what he said during his campaign.

The reasons for all this are many. Opposition parties at both ends thrive on division and fear. The weak and divided Republicans at the center cannot decide whether their future lies in cooperating with Mr Macron or making trouble. The constitution creates too many expectations from one leader. Militant unions care little about consensus culture. Books prominently displayed for sale during a recent day of protests in Paris included “The State and Revolution” by Lenin and “The Ideas of Karl Marx” by Alan Woods.

The president also bears a large share of the blame. His original sin was failing, after his re-election last April, to campaign properly for the parliamentary elections two months later. Mr Macron lost his majority, mishandled pension reform, fired even moderate union leaders, and found himself having to push the law through parliament without a direct vote. The advocate for building a consensus between the left and the right ended up driving a bull through the center of French politics. On April 28, rating agency Fitch downgraded France’s sovereign debt to the same level as Britain’s, citing “political stagnation and (sometimes violent) social movements”.

No sound of silence

Where does this leave Mr Macron, who has four more years in office? It is a challenge for any leader to lead and take the French out of their comfort zone. For the president, his “100 days” is a way to buy time, giving people a chance to let off steam and face the populist charge he has disconnected. For those who meet him on his tours, it’s an opportunity to tell him to his face – and boy, does he come close – how angry they are.

This period will also give Mr Macron time to work out how he should govern differently. New parliamentary elections would probably leave him even short of a majority. A new prime minister would only make sense if he or she could restart the government. Without a formal coalition, bill-by-bill negotiations will make anything but the most uncontroversial reform difficult.

Mr Macron is a serious, intelligent, opinionated leader who thinks ahead and knows where he is trying to take France. But he is also a person who thinks he knows better than everyone else, and has trouble hiding it. This makes his relationship with the French era, and his management style isolated and abrasive. In this respect, the saucepan-banging is a broader metaphor. Because there is a big difference between talking and listening, not to mention believing that your interlocutor has something useful to say. If a reformed president is to emerge from the “100 days”, it might be useful for him to be one who has learned to curb his own instincts.

Read more from Charlemagne, our European politics columnist:
Farming spat bodes ill for Europe’s future prospects (April 27)
Annalena Baerbock’s trip to China shows her talent and her limits (April 20)
How Europe is spluttering its way to better air quality (April 13)

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