To his opponents, Emmanuel Macron is a “president of the rich” or a panderer to Islamophobes. If the polls are right, and he nevertheless wins reelection this month, they’ll insist it was due to the weakness of his opponents.
That is at best half the story.
The French left is hopelessly divided, the centre-right is weak, and many centre-left, as well as centre-right voters, would prefer Macron if the alternative is Marine Le Pen.
But the president also has genuine fans. They are mostly urban and university-educated, financially secure and optimistic about the future.
In the opening round of the 2017 election, Macron got 24 percent support. His approval rating fluctuated widely in the next five years but seldom fell below 25 percent.
First-round polls give him 26 to 28 percent support this year.
To dismiss Macron as a one-eyed king in the land of the blind is to underestimate his appeal. Around one in four French voters are loyal to him.
Macronists came from the Socialist and Republican parties that dominated French politics for decades. They felt the Socialists had lurched too far to the left in a bid for the young and woke, and the Republicans had lurched too far to the right in order to compete with the far right, where many of the Socialists’ old working-class voters had found a home.
Neither party expressed much confidence in France. The left saw a country beholden to big business, the right a nation sold out by globalists who loved Europe but not France.
To the professional middle class, this all sounded ridiculous.
If big business was so powerful, why would no president in 35 years liberalise the labour market? Rather than leave the EU, these voters wanted France to lead it.
Macron’s can-do attitude [he named his party “En Marche!”, which can be translated as “Forward!”, “Let’s go!” or “On the move!”] resonated with them.
He promised long-overdue labour and pension reforms, and to make France a leader in Europe again. And he has.
Leader, not a follower?
Macron made it easier for firms to hire and fire workers. Unemployment fell to a 13-year low. He eased auditing requirements, streamlined bankruptcy procedures and lowered social charges and taxes for entrepreneurs. Business creation went up 60 percent.
He also extended welfare to one million more households, enrolled freelancers in public unemployment insurance, and made dental services, eyeglasses and hearing aids free.
But the left has not forgiven Macron for abolishing a wealth tax few millionaires actually paid.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Macron spent nearly half a trillion euros on furloughs, subsidies and tax breaks, all of which meant the most to the lowest-paid.
Covid then put Macron’s pension reforms on hold.
In a second term, he would raise the retirement age to 65, bringing it in line with the European average.
Officially, the French pension age is 62, but many workers in the public sector are able to retire in their fifties while mothers who interrupt their careers to raise children often have to work into their late 60s to make up for the years they didn’t pay into a pension plan.
Macron would change that. It will mean bus drivers and teachers have to work longer, so trade unions are upset. But the reforms are fair to the vast majority of the French and they will make the retirement system affordable in the long term.
Macron hired 10,000 cops, closed mosques run by radical imams, conditioned state funding for religious institutions on their support of republican values and tightened laws against online hate speech.
This law-and-order offensive has been caricatured in the American media as a “crackdown against Muslims” (The New York Times and Vox), “fomenting a clash of civilizations” (Bloomberg) and “pandering to Islamophobic sentiment” (The Washington Post).
If Macron’s goal was to win over Muslim haters, he has been unsuccessful. Support for far-right candidates has hovered around 30 percent throughout his presidency.
The voters of Le Pen and Éric Zemmour are in many ways the opposite of Macron’s: small-town, without degrees, unemployed or struggling to make ends meet, and pessimistic about their own future as well as France’s.
Nobody who knows French politics would think Macron could win over such voters with one or two “tough on crime” laws.
Few of the analyses in the international press mentioned that France suffered its deadliest terrorist attacks in the two years before Macron was elected.
130 and 86 people were killed by Muslim fanatics in Paris and Nice in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
During Macron’s time in office, high-school teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by an 18 year-old Chechen refugee after showing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad to his pupils. Three Christian worshippers were stabbed to death by a Tunisian-born man in a church in Nice.
Sarah Halimi, a retired Jewish doctor and teacher, was killed when she was thrown off the balcony of her Paris apartment by a Malian immigrant. The murderer was acquitted, because he had been under the influence of cannabis when he committed the crime, which under French law meant he could not be held liable.
Macron wants to change that law.
Macron is now the ‘new Merkel’?
Macron didn’t get everything he wanted in Brussels. His proposals to harmonise business taxes in the EU and create a single European asylum office fell on deaf ears.
But the EU looks and sounds more French than it did five years ago. China’s increasingly blatant authoritarianism and Donald Trump’s doubts about Nato convinced Europeans to invest in their own production of everything from computer chips to weapons.
More trade-dependent member states still worry Macron’s push for “strategic autonomy” is old-fashioned French dirigisme dressed up in the language of the business consultant, but the war in Ukraine had lent credence to France’s long-standing call for a common European defence.
With Angela Merkel off the stage, Macron is well-positioned to become the unofficial president of Europe in a second term. His supporters will not be disappointed.