Statesman, crusader… gambler: How France’s Macron blew his legacy

By Joseph Ataman, CNN

Paris CNN  —  It feels like a lifetime ago. Emmanuel Macron marched on to the stage in 2017, a boyish spring in his step and a breathless excitement in his victory speech: The grand entrance to his presidency.

He promised to be France’s centrist hope after decades of division, the great reformer who would jolt France to the forefront of global business. He’s now staring at what will certainly be his real legacy: Macron opened the door to the far right in France.

After a shattering defeat in May’s European Parliament election, his decision to call a snap election has, at least partially, backfired.

In a surprise result, the New Popular Front (NFP), a cluster of left-wing parties, won 182 seats in the National Assembly, short of a majority but ahead of both Macron’s centrist bloc and the far right.

The far-right bloc was widely expected to come first, but a country-wide effort to hold it back, with both leftists and centrist candidates standing down to concentrate the anti-far-right vote, succeeded.

A relief for Macron, who should be saved from forced cooperation with a far-right prime minister. But the political chaos of a hung parliament awaits: A far-cry from the landslide he won in 2017.

Bold is how many distilled his rocketing ascent into the French presidency; arrogant is how many now view his Icarus-like fall from grace.

Macron demolished the architecture of French politics in his meteoric rise to the Elysee Palace. Carving out a new, centrist party from the political right and left, his landslide victory in 2017 – after just a short stint as a government minister – set him up to suffocate the political landscape, trying to satisfy anti-immigrant border policies with fiscally loose environmental and social protections.

With Macron dominating the middle ground, political oxygen was sucked to the extremes. That’s seen a polarization of policy proposals – from neutering France’s sacrosanct secularism on the left to hounding out “Islamist ideologies” on the right – and a deepening, painful division in French society.

His political star has burnt bright but is already collapsing on itself. This is an end of his own making.

Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the Louvre Museum in Paris after winning the French presidential election in May 2017.

Love or hate relationship

Never afraid to chart a difficult course, early in his presidency he plowed into his project of reform: slashing taxes for the rich and hiking diesel prices. The proposals were typically Macronian: Fiscally sound, business-minded and poorly marketed.

The public reaction too became classic for Macron: Fiery outrage on the streets of France.

The diesel tax sparked the worst protests France – perhaps the spiritual home of street anger – had seen in decades. The “yellow vest” movement swept the country in 2018, bringing hundreds of thousands of everyday French people on to the streets, braving harsh policing and succeeding in holding the country’s political agenda hostage.

“I think that no country moves forward if it does not also hear this part of the legitimate anger of our people,” he said, a couple of months after protests began. “I think that they’re reconcilable and that’s what we’re doing.”

It took the longest street protest in 50 years, but Macron eventually did listen to the anger of the yellow vests, or gilets jaunes.

"Yellow vest" protesters block Caen's ring road on November 18, 2018 in Caen, Normandy.

For a former banker-turned-economy minister, with little relatable experience of everyday France, his solution was a bold stroke of PR: A nationwide tour of town halls, a chance to hear and be heard.

A man never far from accusations of being an ivory-tower politician offered a humble face.

Political stormtrooper

Then came Covid-19.

Macron deployed the all-or-nothing approach he favored, with one of the strictest lockdown regimes in Europe, in repeated waves, and a rigid vaccination protocol.

“We are at war,” he told the nation in March 2020. “Day and night, nothing must distract us from it.”

He embraced a similar philosophy post-pandemic, as the global economy struggled to rebound and tensions over Ukraine threatened to throttle economic growth.

Macron spent big, shielding French businesses and consumers from the worst of energy prices hikes, just months after massive post-Covid spending. By 2024, France was running one of the highest deficits in the Eurozone but the former economy minister had got what he paid for.

French growth is projected to be 0.7 percent in 2024, and gain momentum next year, showing striking resilience since the pandemic. Inflation is also set to fall significantly.

Macron and his supporters point to his economic record as reason enough to vote for him. But the French are rarely so generous with their sitting presidents – gratitude is in short supply.

Today, Macron’s approval ratings sit at 30 percent, down from nearly 50 percent when he stepped into office but his disapproval ratings (now at 65 percent) have not dropped below 50 percent since his first months in office, according to Ipsos-Le Point polling. The French love to hate their politicians and Macron is no different. The country’s two-term constitutional limit means Macron can’t run again for president in 2027.

One lawmaker from Macron’s party said that the public disappointment in the French president stemmed from how publicly invested he had been in the country’s direction, making it clear that his four prime ministers were strictly following his lead.

“He was ultimately very active in his two five-year terms, unlike other presidents who took a back seat and let their prime minister take the hits,” the member of parliament said, requesting anonymity to speak frankly.

“We felt (the PMs) were very dependent on him,” they added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, and France's Emmanuel Macron shake hands after a press conference on June 16, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Under pressure at home, he’s enjoyed playing the statesman, whether rallying forces behind the European project or going head to head with combative counterparts, be they Putin or Trump.

He was a crusader for European military and industrial sovereignty from American patronage long before the war in Ukraine made them fashionable.

And he has been a critical ally to Kyiv in the face of Russia’s 2022 invasion, leading the charge with supplies of light tanks, then long-range missiles and French-made fighter jets, while keeping European allies in lockstep with Ukraine.

In the invasion’s early days, critics slammed him for his efforts with Putin – later revealed to be at Kyiv’s request. But later, he looked to outmanoeuvre Putin with force, raising the issue of NATO-member troop deployments and cementing the West’s unwavering support for Ukraine.

Unheeded warnings?

With the (arguably haughty) self-assuredness that has come to define his image, Macron issued warnings time and again over the menace of the far-right.

“I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers, I don’t want to belong to a generation that’s forgotten its own past or that refuses to see the torments of its own present,” he told the European Parliament in 2018.

Finally, after years of inching far-right advances, the 2024 European Parliament elections saw his centrist politics submerged by a call from the far right.

As Marine Le Pen and her lieutenant Jordan Bardella of National Rally hammer home, too many French voters – struggling with economic pressures and anti-immigration narratives – felt ignored or unheard, those that in his own inauguration speech Macron had called the “French men and French women who feel forgotten by this vast global movement.”

Unheard and ignored was how many working French citizens felt in 2023, as anger at a hike in the retirement age sparked months of protests.

It was a gordian knot of Macron’s own making.

Solving pensions’ fatal funding dilemma was sound policy on paper but woefully sold to the public. It was finally driven into law without lawmakers’ consent: The government ruling by decree.

Stripped of his parliamentary majority in 2022 and stung by a rejection of his vision at the 2024 European elections, he gambled on his faith in the French electorate.

“It is above all, an act of trust,” Macron said as he called snap parliamentary elections, “in the capacity of the French people to make the most just decision.”

Many in France wondered why. Among MPs of Macron’s party, there was “lots of incomprehension,” the lawmaker told CNN.

Struggling with unfavorable parliamentary arithmetic, “it was going to happen in any case,” the MP said. “I think what made it harder for me compared to the others is that the person who pressed the button is the president, so obviously it’s him who is at fault.”

The result was effectively a referendum on Macron himself. His centrist Ensemble alliance now holds 163 seats, far fewer than the 245 seats it took in 2022, and he presents a weakened figure abroad and at home.

The far right argue they pose no threat to France.

“We don’t represent any danger, apart from making (Macron) lose power,” Marine Le Pen told CNN last week. But there is a real fear of a return to power of identity politics in many parts of today’s culturally rich, but complicated, France.

Now that the far right have stormed to legislative power – and have their sights set on the Elysee Palace in 2027 – the threat posed by the National Rally’s victories is not limited to Macron’s ego.

For countless communities in France – French or immigrant – the legacy of one man’s gamble, and the uncertainty that is his legacy, will exact a far higher price.

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