French President Emmanuel Macron had it all; the support of both sides of French politics, – anybody but Le Pen, they said – the boyish energy, and the essential ambiguous, unthreatening, sufficiently vague catchphrase, ‘En Marche!’, or ‘Onward!’.
Like so many young political leaders, Macron had all the prerequisites to be elected. But like so many of the shooting stars that come hurtling across the global political stage, it would be a test of his policies, consistency, demeanor under pressure, diplomatic strength, and general substance which would determine his staying power, legacy, and the immediate future of France.
Even in the wake of a French World Cup victory that would typically help quell protests, if only for the moment, from even the most ardent anti-Macron camps, support for the 40-year-old French president is stunningly meager, and there is little if anything to indicate that he can reverse the downtrend.
Emmanuel Macron has to be asking himself what most foreigners who recently came about his 31% approval rating: Comment sommes-nous arrivés dans le monde?
How in the world did we get here?
It was, after all, not much over a year ago, in May 2017, that Macron entered office with a 62% approval rating and the wind seemingly at his back. But much has changed since then. A series of reversals, policy blunders and embarrassing public gaffes first halted, then turned the tide of Macron’s once-rising popularity. But it is the president’s treatment of the issue of Islam which has caused him the most trouble, and garnered the most disappointment from the French people.
Back in May 2017, Macron was publicly vowing to step up the nation’s fight against Islamist militants in the regions of north Africa which were once French colonies. He was unequivocal, unrelenting in his rhetoric and stance. Islamic extremism would not be accepted, not under his watch.
“It is vital today that we speed up. Our armed forces are giving their all, but we must speed up…We must win the war (against extremism) and win the peace at the same time.” (Reuters)
Today, Macron’s tone on the topic has wavered considerably. France continues to be polarized by the issue of Islam, and Macron’s initial step in solving the religious partition further dividing France into two nations, his north Africa doctrine speech aside, was apparently to address the topic of radical secularization.
‘In December 2017… a few months after his election, Macron organized a meeting with the representatives of six religions (Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist) at the presidential Elysée Palace. At this meeting, Macron reportedly "critically questioned the radicalization of secularism."’ (Gatestone Institute)
In all honesty, French citizens concerned and outraged by this apparent backwards approach to what is, after all, the Islamification of what has traditionally been a Catholic, and otherwise secular, nation should not have been shocked. It falls in line with Macron’s allusion in a 2016 pre-election speech to an emerging “spiteful vision of secularism”.
But…the North Africa speech….right?
It seems as if Macron’s initial foray into pro-traditional French rhetoric, saying the things that many Frenchmen need to hear (namely, that Islam will be countered with rationality, French culture, and real reform) was little more than lip service. After all, he never said that he’d fight Islamic extremism in France, only Africa. And, since then, Macron’s decisions and words have utterly contradicted anybody who thought he’d be pushing for assimilation by immigrants, especially Islamic ones.
‘Macron did better: he created the "Presidential Council of the City", a political structure, composed mostly of Muslim notables (two third of the total members of the Council) and representatives of organizations working in the suburbs… The budget devoted to the urban policy, described in the draft budget, law amounts to 429 million euros for 2018.’ (Gatestone Institute)
Yet, even while attempting to grant more power to the sprawling, ever-growing Islamic neighborhoods which now pepper France – angering many native French in doing so – Macron has also managed to infuriate Muslims by suggesting that he would seek to “build a French Islam”, with the implication that he would any way push for an end to female genital mutilation, honor killings, compelled prayer, or any other inalienable facet of Islam being, naturally, offensive to French Muslims and immigrants. When it comes to Islam, Macron can’t win, and perhaps he never stood a chance.
But religion isn’t the only cinderblock tethered to the president’s approval rating. France’s economy came up short of expectations for first-half growth. The ideal rate of growth for economies is between 2-3%, preferably on the higher side. Analysts expect the French economy to be stuck at 1.8% for the year, and perhaps a tick below. Macron continues to push for reform of bloated French pension and entitlement programs, one of the bright spots for his pro-business supporters. But in doing so, and for being caught referring to the French people as "Gauls who are resistant to change”, Macron has managed to infuriate the café-frequenting, vacation-loving French who have always valued pleasure over the dignity of hard work.
And then there’s the youth. 72% of 18 to 24 year olds in France disapprove of Macron. There’s no doubt that his ‘pull up your bootstraps’ mentality is not a winner among the young generation, and they’ve taken exception to an exchange in which he suggests to a discouraged young person that he do the equivalent of getting resilient and finding a job, prospects be damned.
Roll all of these issues into one, and you get a 31% approval rating. But, considering that Macron seemingly means well, and that he is tasked with pleasing no fewer than a gazillion competing interests, each with highly-polarized demands, it’s far to ask:
Did Emmanuel Macron ever have a chance – does any leader have a chance – to succeed in France as it exists today?