Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Macron mystery

French President Emmanuel Macron remains a mystery to many of the country’s commentators, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

French President Emmanuel Macron is a mystery to me. At first glance, he looks like a post-modern liberal coming from the world of finance and having espoused this world’s views on the economy and its winners and losers. But then you discover he studied with the late French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. You note that his presidential style is, to say the least, not “post-modern”. Instead, he stresses the need for “verticality,” meaning strong, even monarchical leadership. He seldom talks to journalists, and he tries to control his own political communication.

The most reassuring fact is that he is a quick-learner and is eager to learn from his own mistakes. The most troubling is that his first reaction is too often a blunder. Another interesting feature is that he seems to know what he wants to do, firstly by avoiding former French president François Hollande’s supposed mistakes. The latter’s 2012 presidential election campaign advocated left-wing policies, and after he was elected he did not reverse course immediately, losing crucial months.

Following this, Hollande failed to impose his new, more centrist line on the Socialist Party’s parliamentary majority, and a group of fractious MPs proceeded to poison his presidency. On too many issues Hollande seemed to be too hesitant and too eager to backpedal. Finally, and importantly, he was too eager to talk off the record with too many journalists. Of course, this assessment of Hollande’s legacy may be too harsh or too unfair, but this is another issue.

Macron wants to “modernise” the French economy and French employment law, and he knows that public opinion on this is sceptical. Moreover, his victory in the presidential elections was less impressive than it might look. His first-round score was not good, and the turn-out was poor. The brilliant score his République en Marche Movement achieved in the later parliamentary elections does not mean that the French electorate is fond of him either: what it means is that French voters want leadership and are afraid of deadlock, so they gave him the majority he needed. Moreover, he benefited from the poor electoral strategies of his Républicains and Socialist Party opponents.

It seems to me that Macron knows his reforms will be unpopular, and as a result he is trying to impose them now, hoping that they will bear fruit in a year and two. Public opinion will then be grateful, he thinks. He is also trying to rein in the country’s budget’s deficit, something that is deemed necessary and might even strengthen his negotiating position with Germany as he pushes for reforms in the European Union. The UK decision to leave the union, the so-called Brexit, is both a problem and an opportunity for France. While the country is happy to play a greater role in the union, it is wary of Germany’s increasing clout.

One piece of important collateral damage from Macron’s approach has been his quarrel with French Army Chief of Staff General Pierre de Villiers. The latter resigned after budget cuts to the military and after Macron humiliated him in an ill-thought-out speech. De Villiers is a towering figure, and the army has been increasingly popular in a country that faces many security challenges. Macron and his team completely mishandled the issue, and many pundits think this largely explains the recent sharp drop in his popularity.

Many critics have lashed out against his general strategy. The extreme left and the extreme right in France both say that this is too tough on the country’s poorest and is being carried through in obedience to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both extremes hate the European Union and economic globalisation. Meanwhile, the French army says that the cuts Macron is introducing will jeopardise its capabilities at a critical time. Some French pro-Europeans, while approving the “opening” to Germany, say the timing of this was inappropriate and that it would have been better to wait for the results of the German elections, scheduled for September, in order to see what kind of coalition emerges in Berlin.

Others, also favouring a strengthening of ties with Germany, think a better approach would be to emphasise French assets and German weaknesses: France can benefit Germany a lot in terms of security and military issues, they say. Trying to look like a good schoolboy on economic and budgetary issues is either not necessary, or not enough, or both, they add. Still others, while being pro-European, say the opening to Germany was not the right approach, and that former presidents Hollande and Sarkozy were right when they opted for a kind of coalition of interests with the southern European countries of Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

Worse still, they say, on economic issues and on the crisis in Libya Macron has clashed with Rome at a most inappropriate time. Germany cannot give France what it wants as the two economic systems and their needs are too different, and the European Union cannot be tailored to suit both, such critics say.

Macron has also been trying to build a good personal relationship with US President Donald Trump. He seems to think he will be able to moderate the latter’s views and to maintain bridges between Europe and the US that have been damaged by rifts between Trump and Merkel. He thinks he will be able to improve France’s influence and standing.

He does not seem to be intellectually interested in the Middle East, though he knows he faces two difficult security challenges there: migration and terrorism. He also knows that these are major concerns for France. The French security and foreign policy communities have been engaged in intense internal debates, and for now it seems that those who advocate for a focus on Libya have won.

Libya is important both for issues of migration and terrorism, and the crisis in the country remains a threat to Tunisia, Algeria and Sub-Saharan Africa, all of which have very close links to France and to Egypt, another important French partner. The main question is whether the situation in Libya will quickly improve, together with how much leverage France really has and how it should handle the complexities and different protagonists of the situation. The meeting with Libyan General Khalifa Haftar and Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj was a major step, but critics quickly noted that other actors were not invited. Foreign countries playing in the Libyan field also have conflicting interests.

It is too early to tell if Macron’s policies will work and whether they can reverse France’s slow decline. We cannot know whether Macron will be persistent enough to stay on course, how he will react to crises, and how much he can adapt. The team around him is also untested and is largely unknown. Many French pundits are saying that if Macron fails in his agenda for change, France will face a disastrous extremist option. This seems an exaggerated fear, but nobody really knows.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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