President Emmanuel Macron will launch this week a three-month “great national debate” on the future of France after prolonged ‘yellow vest’ anti-government demonstrations protests. The demonstrations have badly weakened Macron and one of the key political questions in 2019 is whether he can recover some of his former sky-high popularity.
The answer matters not just to France, but also Europe and the world at large, given that Macron has emerged as perhaps the most authoritative defender of the liberal international order in his short period in office. Indeed, the French president alongside his United States counterpart Donald Trump currently embody more than any other democratic leaders the present ‘battle’ in international relations between an apparently rising populist tide and the centre ground, which will continue to play out in 2019.
Macron’s victory in 2017 against Trump’s preferred far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen was so striking as it defied the march of populism in numerous countries that had seen parties of the centre ground sometimes taking a political battering. Macron’s win then appeared to represent at least a partial turnaround in fortunes — in Europe at least — for centre ground politics.
From the perspective of French domestic politics, a critical question for Macron in 2019 will be whether the yellow vest protests have extinguished his programme of economic reforms. These changes were thrown into doubt after the president announced in December that he has backtracked on a fuel tax hike and gave billions of pounds in aid to try to end the several weeks of protests.
In his New Year address, Macron asserted that the reforms will continue, and insisted that his government “can do better” at improving the lives of citizens across the nation. Yet, many yellow vest protesters are calling for him to leave office.
The anger was underlined in a poll released last week showing that 75 per cent of the population are unhappy with the way Macron is running the country. The survey, for franceinfo and the Figaro newspaper, compares bleakly for Macron to one from April 2018 when ‘only’ 59 per cent of those surveyed were unhappy with the government, and that the top priority for the French populace is finding ways to boost consumer purchasing power.
The poll underlines the volatility of the political mood in France which, ironically, helped propel Macron’s meteoric rise into power in 2017. It was this similar anti-establishment political sentiment that put the country into uncharted territory by ensuring Macron’s En Marche! party — which was only founded in April 2016 — could not just win the presidency, but also handsomely win the legislative ballots with one of the biggest majorities since former president Charles de Gaulle’s 1968 landslide victory.
In this continuing volatile context, the outlook is highly uncertain for the remainder of Macron’s presidency. Although a majority of voters decided to favour hope (Macron) over anger (Le Pen) in 2017, the tide could potentially now turn decisively against him if he fails to address the anti-establishment anger fuelled by economic pain, which has seen the country suffer years of double-digit unemployment and also low growth which pre-date his presidency.
Part of the challenge here for Macron, the youngest president in the six-decade-long French Fifth Republic, has been the very high initial expectations surrounding his presidency. Here he will be acutely aware how early optimism during the last two presidencies of Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande fizzled out with both ultimately becoming unpopular one-term heads of state. Indeed, Hollande — who became the least popular president since records began — decided not to even seek re-election, the first incumbent not to try for a second term in the Fifth Republic.
The stakes in play are so high because, given voter discontent with the traditional political duopoly of centre-right Republicans and centre-left Socialists, if Macron fails with his political programme, the primary beneficiaries of popular discontent with him may well be extreme anti-establishment figures, especially the leader of the far-right National Front Le Pen. Although she was comprehensively beaten by Macron in 2017, she nonetheless secured more than 40 per cent of the vote and is young enough to run potentially in several more presidential elections.
To regain the political initiative in this context, and become a powerful contender for a second term of office, Macron needs to rebuild public confidence in his policy agenda. During his election campaign, he showed that politicians of the centre ground often benefit from having an optimistic, forward-looking vision for tackling complex, long-term policy challenges like tackling stagnant living standards, and re-engaging people with the political process, to help build public confidence around solutions to them.
Tackling such tough-to-solve, first-order challenges in this context is a significant hurdle that centrist politicians across much of the world are widely perceived to have failed on, helping give rise to perceptions of a broken political process. To get back on the front foot, Macron will need to skilfully show again how a fair, tolerant, inclusive democratic politics can help overcome or ameliorate the challenges that many people are experiencing in a world changing fast in the face of globalisation.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.