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Emmanuel Macron: France's New Emperor?

Updated on July 7, 2017

On August 30th 2016, Emmanuel Macron resigned as the French economy minister, leaving behind the Socialist Party and his highly unpopular mentor, Francois Hollande. The French media went into a frenzy, Macron was labelled a back stabber, a snake, even a petulant child. He was one of the most unpopular figures in the country and yet, ten months later, he holds the highest office in the country along with a healthy parliamentary majority.

Two similar leaders, centuries apart
Two similar leaders, centuries apart

Since the initial public backlash died down, he hardly put a foot wrong on his surprisingly smooth path to the top of European politics. While his solid performance during the presidential campaign is nothing to sniff at, he was greatly helped by a series of political events, ranging from mishaps to full blown meltdowns, on both the right and left sides of French politics, that helped pave his way to the Élysée Palace.

First, were shock results in the presidential primaries for both the Republicans and the Socialists. With the favourites for both parties losing out to candidates with more extreme views, those being Francois Fillion for the Republicans and Benoit Hamon for the Socialists. Early polls showed Fillion comfortably in the lead, with the Hollande hangover leaving the socialists lagging behind. However, that all changed when a misappropriation of funds scandal marred the Republican candidate’s bid, leaving only three candidates in contention for the first round. The controversial Marine Le Pen, of the right-wing, anti-globalist, anti-immigration Front National, Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Communist Party and a surprising new front-runner, Emmanuel Macron, heading his newly formed party En Marche! Which some eagle eyed analysts noticed happened to have the same initials as its leader.

After winning the first round, with Marine Le Pen coming in second, his place as president was all but sealed, as it was almost a given that the majority of French voters would unite behind him against the “French Donald Trump.” That’s exactly what happened, and Macron walked into the presidency with 65% of the votes.

Victory is only the beginning
Victory is only the beginning

That’s when the work really began for the president elect, who at the time of his election, headed a party with no members of parliament and no cabinet. Speculation was rife in the media until rumours started circulating that he was going to attempt to lure some more right wing voters over to his side by adding a Republican prime minister. Those rumours turned out to be true and soon a cabinet took shape, with a mix of young conservatives and socialists that fit his image of a rejuvenated France. Between his election and the parliamentary elections, there were plenty of flashpoints that gave the world a glimpse of their new leader, which included a master class in PR at the G7 summit.

Macron’s ability to charm people has been no secret, neither has his habit of ruthlessly discarding those who are no longer useful. The most high profile case is obviously when he quit as economy minister, but there have been other cases. Many people dismissed his ability to charm by saying that literally any of the other candidates would have won a second round against Le Pen, just by virtue of her extreme views and the uncertainty that would have surrounded her promise to abandon the Euro and return to the Franc. During the campaign and especially after the election, Macron has constantly preached his belief in the European Union and vowed to strengthen it, whilst keeping the Euro sceptics happy by insisting the current system must be reformed. These suggested reforms were initially met rather coldly by “Mrs. Europe” Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, her stance has softened as she seeks to strengthen the EU’s position in a post-Brexit world where allies are increasingly hard to come by.

One could argue that launching a charm offensive on Germany would be easy, but what came next at the G7 summit was a work of art. It’s almost unprecedented for a political newcomer to enter one of the most hostile political arenas on earth, with no real leverage to work with, and come out the undisputed winner of the exchange. Sure, Vladimir Putin has flexed his muscles over the years with proxy wars and threats to reduce energy supplies, but his shows of force are rarely well received and do more to stroke his ego than advance Russia’s standing in the world. Macron’s performance was the opposite. With a sinking economy, cumbersome governmental structure and stagnant growth, France didn’t have a lot going for it and yet, in a world where most people are disenchanted with their governments, the French are highly optimistic for the first time in a very long time.

A quick rundown of Macron’s highlights shows someone who is not only supremely confident, but understands how each world leader, and their voters, ticks. First, we were treated to the humorous handshake war with Donald Trump. While entertaining, it showed two things; the first, admitted by Macron himself, was to show that France wouldn’t make even the smallest concessions to the US, and the second, served to completely undermine Trump’s party trick of circumventing political etiquette and norms in an attempt to disrupt whoever he’s talking to. After that handshake, Trump was on the back foot for the rest of the conference. Then came the following conversation, at which Macron spoke at length with the US commander in chief in French, without a translator, knowing full well President Trump isn’t fluent in the language. It served to show “The Donald,” who is often so comfortable on his home turf, that he’s a fish out of water on the international stage.

After some glad handing with Angela Markel, Macron focused his attention to Brexit Britain, holding long talks with Theresa May, in English. This had the double effect of showing cooperation with Britain, while highlighting the fact that Macron intentionally kept Trump out in the cold. His best coup however, was cultivating the most PR friendly bromance in modern politics. Frequently photographed with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, he cemented himself as a member of the innovative new generation of young, liberal politicians.

The now infamous handshake
The now infamous handshake

Macron was certainly the undisputed winner of the G7 summit, from a political and PR point of view. It is there that the comparisons with Napoleon began to crop up. While Napoleon used his vast armies and military might to gain supremacy, Macron uses his charm and media image to forge alliances and weaken his opponents. At his peak, Napoleon was the most powerful man in the world and while Macron is some ways away from that, he faces many of the same pitfalls. While Napoleon ended up stretching himself too thin and losing public support for his numerous and costly wars (like many before and after him, it all unravelled with an ill-fated venture into the Russian winter) Macron faces similar, albeit more diplomatic challenges.

With a party made up of MP’s from both sides of the political spectrum, Macron has to tread very carefully if he is to unite France, not draw an even bigger wedge between its people. His, almost Regan-esque fiscal policies, along with his social liberalism appeal mostly to young urban voters who are desperate for social change and economic revival. In a country where the state uses up a whopping 55% of the GDP, and youth unemployment stands at about 20% Macron has every reason to want to trim the fat from the state and stimulate economic growth.

His plans aren’t without resistance however, his pro Europe stance has hit a sour note with many voters. Looking at the first round of the presidential election, Macron won 24% of the vote and as the only openly Europhilic candidate, means he is in charge of a country where 76% of the population voted for candidates that wanted a bigger disconnect from Brussels. In fact, the 2016 Eurobarometer showed that 56% of France’s population was pessimistic about the future of the EU, compared to only 51% of Britons.

The EU isn’t his only stumbling block, his proposed labour reforms have irked the infamously powerful French unions, whose ability to disrupt everyday life will be on full display the second they get a whiff of labour law reform, including his controversial proposal to actually weaken the power of the unions.

Having a majority in the house will give him unprecedented power, something that was warned against by his opponents, with the Republicans even saying “France didn’t elect an Emperor.” However, his healthy parliamentary majority means passing laws won’t be the problem, the troubles will come from governing France’s various regions. Now that his MP’s are in place, they will have a responsibility to their constituents. His mix of conservatives and liberals could create friction amongst voters. Conservative voters, who might have a right leaning MP from En Marche might apply pressure when more left leaning policies are up for discussion, the same could be said for left leaning voters resisting conservative fiscal policy changes. This puts the MP’s in an awkward situation as they have a duty to the president, but must also appease their constituents or risk losing their seat.

This means Macron walks on very thin ice, he must convince voters from all walks of life and political beliefs to join behind his vision of France, or risk increasing the divide between the left and the right. With healthy opposition to his aggressive free market fiscal policy and concerns of terrorism and immigration hampering his vision of a France without borders, he must be careful not to lean too far to one side, or the entire house of cards will come down. However, if he can deliver a few wins for the French people as a whole, their belief will begin to grow and his foundational support will increase. Unfortunately, much like Napoleon, if his defensive line is breached, he could soon find himself surrounded by enemies on all sides.

Macron has impressed both domestically and on the international stage, but his success or failure, much like Napoleon, will not be determined by his international victories, but his ability to deliver similar victories on a domestic scale.

For all the things Napoleon accomplished in his life, it is no doubt that in his attempts to make France the undisputed ruler of the world, he left it a much weaker country than when he took over. The French people will be hoping their latest young, charismatic leader meets a more favourable end, both for himself and for the people he governs.

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