Most world leaders, with the possible exception of Germany’s unaffected Angela Merkel, are obsessed with their public image. But no current leader seems quite as involved with himself and the image he projects as French President Emmanuel Macron. The superstar chef d'état makes Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau look like monks in comparison.
The photograph of Mr. Macron cheering on France’s national soccer team during last month’s World Cup final, which went viral faster than it took striker Antoine Griezmann to score the game’s opening goal, was a feat of stagecraft that made more than a few politicians jealous of the French leader’s uncanny ability to grandstand and get away with it. The image seemed to encapsulate the kinetic energy and winning spirit of a leader who means to make history.
Barely a year into office, Mr. Macron stands a better chance than any of his recent predecessors of becoming the transformative president France has been yearning for pretty much since Charles de Gaulle packed it in in 1969. Even Henry Kissinger, who has sized up more than a few historical figures, is impressed. As the 95-year-old former U.S. secretary of state last month said of Mr. Macron: “I can’t yet say he’s effective because he’s just started, but I like his style.”
Alas, Mr. Macron appears to be imperfect after all. The President’s handling of the so-called Benalla affair, which has dominated the French news for days, has revealed some of the more troubling traits of a leader French voters and the world are really only getting to know.
Forget whooping it up at the World Cup. The mysterious case of the 26-year-old presidential aide who was filmed beating up protestors at a May Day demonstration has dented Mr. Macron’s armour. And since Le Monde revealed on July 18 that the aggressor in the police helmet was indeed Alexandre Benalla, an aide who worked in the office of Mr. Macron’s chief of staff, France has been consumed by the saga of the President and his sometimes bodyguard and tennis partner.
It’s not just because Mr. Benalla faces possible criminal charges. It’s because the affair has raised a host of questions about Mr. Benalla’s real job at the Élysée Palace and his relationship to Mr. Macron. The internet and social media have been rife with conspiracy theories suggesting everything from the existence of a parallel police force and deep state to rumours that Mr. Benalla was having an affair with Mr. Macron himself. Fake news and innuendo have at times crowded out reporting by real journalists seeking to get to the bottom of l’affaire Benalla.
The real reporting has, indeed, revealed surprising details about Mr. Benalla’s seemingly favourable treatment by the President’s entourage, including an initial slap-on-the-wrist, two-week suspension for the May Day incident and use of a luxury apartment near the Élysée Palace. Media outlets at first reported incorrect details about the size of the apartment and Mr. Benalla’s salary, but the errors were corrected after the Élysée provided more information.
Yet, the President, who benefited from media scrutiny of his rivals during the 2016-17 primary and election campaigns, has taken to lumping legitimate news outlets in with propagators of fake news in what appears to be a bid to discredit any reporting he doesn’t like. And he has done this so brazenly that it has fed into characterizations of an imperial President who, unchallenged, would run roughshod over democratic institutions and the news media.
“Alexandre Benalla has never had the nuclear codes. Alexandre Benalla has never lived in a 300 square-metre [state provided] apartment. Alexandre Benalla has never earned €10,000 [$15,000 a month], Alexandre Benalla has never been my lover, either,” Mr. Macron jested last week, in dismissing both the fake news and real reporting about his now-former aide as “rubbish.”
A day later, when journalists were trying to scrum the President on one of his frequent meet-and-greets with voters, Mr. Macron snubbed the media and snapped: “You’ve said a lot of stupid things in recent days about so-called salaries and advantages. All of it was false.”
Well, actually, most of it was true. And the minor errors the President took umbrage with were made in the course of honest reporting. At this rate, Mr. Macron will be calling the media the “enemy of the people” in no time. Just like that guy who lives in that big white house.
Even great leaders have flaws. Mr. Macron should recognize his own before it’s too late.