“Remember when we all believed in Emmanuel Macron?” The question comes not from an angry trade unionist but a stand-up comedian in central Paris, facing a crowd of 30-something urbanites cut from the same cloth as France’s 42-year-old president. A collective groan of “yes” rises from the audience, many of whom spent the winter struggling through transport strikes triggered by a flagship pension reform that crippled the city. Only one dismissive “no!” rings out. “There’s always one person who voted for Jean-Luc Melenchon,” the comedian shoots back, referring to a far-left leader who’s one of Macron’s most scathing critics.
While highly unscientific, the groan-o-meter fits with the bigger national picture for Macron, who seems to get less popular the more he achieves. The president’s approval ratings declined after his election in 2017 amid a flurry of reforms, and sank below 30 percent in late 2018, when the Gilets Jaunes protests that spawned from anger over plans to hike gasoline prices were at their peak. He’s still polling at around 25 percent, even after striking a compromise with France’s biggest trade union to ease the gridlock on public transport. Disappointment is now starting to seep into his core fan-base of young, urban professionals -- the bloc bourgeois of center-left and center-right white-collar workers who are pro-reform and pro-EU. Paris, where Macron got 90 percent of votes in 2017, may well re-elect its Socialist mayor in March.
The barometer of anti-Macron feeling, ranging from quiet disillusionment to violent street protests and death threats against politicians, has little to do with economic performance or a failure to carry out reform pledges. The French economy grew 2.3 percent in 2017 and 1.7 percent in 2018; unemployment fell to a decade low in 2019; and business investment has rebounded. A surprise contraction in the fourth quarter of last year put annual growth in 2019 at 1.3 percent, but Barclays economist Francois Cabau expects that to be a one-off and is cautiously optimistic. The 91 reforms passed by the Macron administration and its ruling party, En Marche! (Onward!), should start to bear fruit soon. They have moderately or largely kept their promises 69 percent of the time, according to think-tank iFRAP.
Yet Macron has managed to lose the French people in the process. Some of it is personal: His star-pupil attitude, combining youthful arrogance and Jupiterian haughtiness, grates. Some of it is institutional: If Macron behaves like a monarchical, top-down ruler, it’s also because the Fifth Republic concentrates a lot of executive power in the presidency and has no mid-term elections to worry the ruling party in parliament. And some of it is political: The first-timers that stuff the ranks of Macron’s party got over-confident in long-term planning, completely underestimated the Yellow Vest movement and failed to do the groundwork necessary to negotiate pension reforms.
There’s also the changing nature of French society. Life is becoming less comfortable than it used to be, as Pierre Brechon of Sciences Po Grenoble puts it. Since 2000, several bells have tolled for the establishment: A rise in the far-right vote that almost won the presidency in 2002; a “no” referendum vote on an EU constitutional treaty in 2005; and the respective failure of both Right and Left to win re-election in 2012 and 2017. Despite relatively low income inequality and a cradle-to-grave welfare state, France hasn’t stamped out divisions among socioeconomic and cultural lines, which author Jerome Fourquet says has created an “archipelago” of disparate social islands. The postwar era’s influences of Catholicism and communism are fading, traditional media is on the wane, and conspiracy theories like “chemtrails” and anti-vax arguments spread by social media are on the rise. Macron was a net beneficiary of this anti-elitist atmosphere in 2017, as a relative newcomer leading a new party. In 2020, he is on the receiving end.
Ambivalence now reigns supreme. Macron’s reform agenda was promoted as a soft, Scandinavian-style answer to France’s woes -- now it’s viewed as harsh medicine that will leave winners and, more importantly, losers in its wake. True believers who think France has changed since 2017 and will change in the coming years are in the minority, between 30 percent and 40 percent. That doesn’t mean revolution is in the air. Support for the pension protests is split, while the proportion of people who defined themselves as Yellow Vests in late 2018 and early 2019 oscillated at 10 percent-20 percent. Either way, the pace of reform is likely to slow. Macron’s government has already given up budgetary rigor.
It’s still too early to write off Macron but, if recent history is any guide, this kind of unpopularity is almost impossible to reverse. The backlash against globalization and a lack of social mobility are powerful forces, as they are in Trump’s America and Brexit Britain. Whoever wins the presidential election in 2022 will either hit upon a new narrative that binds the Parisians of the bloc bourgeois to other parts of French society -- maybe with a nod to the environment -- or, as far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Melenchon and his far-left party France Unbowed are already doing, declare war on them entirely.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. -- Ed.