Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
When Emmanuel Macron became France’s president in 2017, it was more than just an electoral victory for him – it was an important symbolic one, too. By defeating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the former National Front party, who U.S. President Donald Trump described as “the strongest on what’s been going on in France," he defied the march of populism in numerous countries in which centrist parties took political batterings. The decisive wins by his party, République En Marche!, seemed like at least a partial turnaround in fortunes – in Europe at least – for moderate, liberal-order politics.
But the times have changed dramatically for the French President. Wearing their trademark yellow vests, many thousands of “gilets jaune” protesters took to French streets on Saturday and Sunday for the eighth consecutive weekend of anti-government demonstrations. Mr. Macron announced in December that he would backtrack on the fuel-tax hike that sparked the movement. He did assert, in his New Year address, that the reforms will continue, but insisted that his government “can do better” at improving the lives of citizens across the country. But the calls for him to leave office continue, and now, it’s an open question whether the president who once enjoyed sky-high popularity can recover.
The answer matters not just to France – but also to Europe, and the world at large.
This past weekend of demonstrations coincided with a franceinfo/Figaro poll released on Friday that found that 75 per cent of the population are unhappy with the way Mr. Macron is running the country. That’s up from the 59 per cent who were unhappy with the government in April.
The poll and continuing protests underline the volatility of the political mood in France which, ironically, helped propel Mr. Macron’s meteoric rise in the first place. It was anti-establishment political sentiment that put the country into uncharted territory when his En Marche! party – which had only been founded in 2016 – won not just the presidency, but also dominated the parliamentary elections with the largest margin since Charles de Gaulle’s 1968 landslide.
Although a majority of voters decided to favour Mr. Macron’s hope over Ms. Le Pen’s anger in 2017, the tide could now turn decisively against him if he fails to address the anti-establishment anger that has been fuelled by double-digit unemployment numbers, low economic growth and citizens' economic pain, all of which predated his presidency.
Part of the challenge here for Mr. Macron – the youngest president in the six decades of the French Fifth Republic – has been the very high initial expectations surrounding his presidency. Here he will be acutely aware how early optimism during the past two presidencies of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande fizzled away, with both ultimately washing out as unpopular, one-term heads of state. Indeed, Mr. Hollande – whose presidency ended with the lowest approval ratings since such records began – decided not to even seek re-election, the first incumbent not to try for a second term in the Fifth Republic.
Given voter discontent with the traditional political duopoly of centre-right Republicans and centre-left Socialists, the failure of Mr. Macron’s political programme could only embolden extreme anti-establishment figures. And although Ms. Le Pen was soundly defeated by Mr. Macron in 2017, she nonetheless secured more than one-third of the vote, and is young enough to run potentially in several more presidential elections.
To regain the political headwinds, Mr. 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 the ability to campaign on optimistic, forward-looking visions on tackling complex, long-term policy challenges such as stagnant living standards and voter disillusionment, and for building public confidence around the solutions to them.
But centrist politicians across much of the world are widely perceived to have failed on their promises, helping give rise to perceptions of a broken political process. Mr. Macron will need to show again how fair, tolerant, inclusive democratic politics can help overcome the challenges that many people are experiencing in a world changing fast in the face of globalization. The stakes are higher than his own political life.