France’s new president entered office with immense popularity identifying himself as a political outsider, much like his United States counterpart. But will the Paris newcomer be able to deliver on his promises?
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President Emmanuel Macron has likened his rebellious leanings to Joan of Arc, the 15th-century farm girl who rallied the nation’s army to repel a British invasion. Yet most commentators compare the current French leader to another historical figure.
“Physically, Macron evokes more the young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, during his first campaign in Italy,” Euronews reported. “He advances his mission through a combination of youthful energy, self-confidence, political cunning, technocratic competence, and a sense of moderation.”
Mr. Macron himself hinted at the comparison during a televised debate: “I bring the spirit of French conquest.”
While he was running for office, Mr. Macron received no comparisons to larger-than-life figures. Most citizens did not recognize him. His opponents branded him as inexperienced as he had never before held an elected position.
But the 39-year-old wunderkind took Paris by storm, winning the presidency on May 7 with 66 percent of the popular vote—twice that of his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen. His one-year old party Republique En Marche (Republic Onward) then secured a parliamentary majority in June.
It was the first election in which either nominee did not come from mainstream right or left parties, and never before had an independent won the French presidency. Mr. Macron also became the youngest president in France’s history.
Europe sighed with relief because Mr. Macron’s victory halted the wave of right-wing populism heralded by Ms. Le Pen, who promised to follow the United Kingdom’s pattern and pull out of the European Union. The euro responded by hitting a six-month high the day after the election.
Still, the overwhelming success signaled that voters were tired of politics as usual and wanted sweeping change. Mr. Macron’s En Marche movement “all but obliterated the traditional political parties that have dominated politics in France for about 50 years, including the Socialist Party that governed the country until last month,” Time stated. “The achievement has stunned political veterans, who liken it to a political revolution.”
Yet conditions were ripe for change. France has endured some of its worst problems since the second world war. Its economy—the third largest in Europe—has barely recovered from the 2008 global financial crisis. Unemployment remains around 10 percent—more than double the levels in the United Kingdom and Germany—and government debt has ballooned to 90 percent of the GDP.
In addition, a string of deadly terror attacks since November 2015 has kept France in a near-constant state of emergency. Citizens are demanding greater security, which will require an overhaul of policies on immigration and EU border control.
French voters looking for drastic change rallied behind Mr. Macron, who has promised big shake-ups for France and its involvement in Europe and the globe.
Four months in, the president—and first-time politician—is facing the reality of the office. In July, a row with France’s armed forces chief concerning nearly $1 billion of military spending cuts resulted in Mr. Macron’s popularity rating declining 10 percentage points, which is the biggest drop for a new president in 22 years.
“The strife is likely to get worse as Mr. Macron works to cut more than five times that much from this year’s overall budget, and more for 2018, to meet the European Union’s deficit limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product,” The New York Times reported. “The French have long understood the need to trim their spending, but every cut is fiercely, and often successfully, resisted. Town mayors are up in arms against cuts to local government budgets, university professors are furious about cuts to their funding, and an overhaul to pension and labor laws is certain to bring down the wrath of the unions.”
And this is just the beginning of Mr. Macron’s five-year term, in which he must make good on the promises that brought him to the Elysee Palace. But his path to presidency reveals that he may be able to carve a way to success, even against the odds.
From the time Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frederic Macron was born on December 21, 1977, in Amiens, a city in northern France, his career seemed determined. Both of his parents were doctors and his two younger siblings entered the field as well.
But Emmanuel took a different route. He showed an aptitude for literature and theater while attending a local Jesuit school, La Providence. “Macron loved to read and existed slightly in his own world,” NPR reported. His maturity level surpassed those of his classmates, as he “always felt at ease and mixed easily with adults.”
It was this ease that led to the 15-year-old student’s affair with his drama teacher, Brigitte Auziere Trogneux, a 39-year-old married mother of three who would later become his wife (the legal age of consent in the nation is 15). She later explained in the documentary Emmanuel Macron – The Strategy of a Star that “little by little, I became completely subjugated by the intelligence of this young man. His mind is so full and perfect. His capacities are completely beyond any normal human being’s.”
After discovering the relationship, Emmanuel’s parents pulled their son out of the school and moved him to Paris. There he studied at one of France’s most prestigious schools, Lycee Henri IV. Graduating at 18, he then pursued a master’s degree in philosophy at Nanterre University, as well as a master’s degree in public policy at Sciences Po. Meanwhile, he served as an editorial assistant for French philosopher and historian Paul Ricoeur.
The young man proved determined to learn and pursue a vigorous schedule. A classmate at Sciences Po told Reuters, “He was always doing so many things at the same time.”
Throughout his schooling, Mr. Macron’s true ambition was to become a politician. Another of his classmates told Reuters: “He always wanted to be in politics, be elected. He talked about it all the time.” This was especially clear when he pursued education at Ecole Nationale d’Administration, an elite school with a reputation for being a fast track into politics. Its founder was Charles de Gaulle, and many important French politicians graduated from there, including former presidents Francois Hollande, Jacques Chirac, and Valery Giscard d’Estaing.
Mr. Macron graduated near the top of his class, and immediately entered public service as a finance inspector for the French Ministry of Economy and Finance. He briefly became involved in politics when he was tapped by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 to join the bipartisan Attali Commission on economic growth.
But in 2008, Mr. Macron changed course and decided to leave public service. He bought out his government contract for about $70,000 in order to enter the private sector, a decision friends believed would prevent him from ever becoming elected.
European news outlet The Local reported: “He became an investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque [a French branch of Rothschild financial group], with some close to him warning that earning millions as an investment banker could scupper his chances of a life in politics.
“But he ignored them and went on to earn €2.9m [$3.4 million] for his role advising Nestle on its $12 billion acquisition of a unit of Pfizer in 2012 as well as the nickname the ‘Mozart of Finance.’”
“Even though Macron was targeted by rivals for his past in banking and was dubbed ‘the candidate of finance’ by Marine Le Pen, his stunning victory in the presidential election proved he was right to ignore the warnings from his friends.”
Mr. Macron’s involvement in the Nestle-Pfizer deal caught the attention of then-presidential candidate Francois Hollande, who hired Mr. Macron to work in his Socialist Party ahead of the 2012 election. When Mr. Hollande won, he appointed Mr. Macron as deputy secretary-general. This position put him as France’s representative at international summits.
Recognizing Mr. Macron’s talents and investment experience, Mr. Hollande elevated him to minister of economy, industry, and digital data. In this position, he was tasked with reforming the nation’s economy, which had experienced three years of zero growth by the time he was appointed.
Mr. Macron’s solution? Le loi Macron (The Macron law), a reform package intended to provide an economic shot in the arm. The left-wing Socialist Party resisted the law because it deregulated business, though it was eventually pushed through by bypassing parliament. The entire process tainted Mr. Macron’s view of the Socialist Party.
Le loi Macron, though unpopular with the public, loosened restrictions involving business on Sundays, but kept the highly contested 35-hour work week.
Ultimately, the measure proved Mr. Hollande’s undoing, as it prompted backlash from the left and right. In addition, Mr. Hollande’s handling of the migrant crisis caused his public approval rating to dip to a historic low—fueling the rise of nationalistic presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
A disillusioned Mr. Macron announced in April 2016 the formation of Republique En Marche and stated his intention to run in the presidential election as an independent candidate.
Mr. Macron characterized his party as a “democratic revolution.” Britannica summarized: “Echoing the third way [centrist] paradigm that had been promoted by Bill Clinton in the United States and Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain, Macron proposed a centre-left fusion of populism and neoliberalism. Observers noted that the timing of the announcement—slightly more than a year ahead of the 2017 presidential election—strongly hinted at an outsider bid for the Elysee Palace.”
The creation of the party soured the Macron-Hollande relationship, and four months later Mr. Macron resigned from his position.
Critics considered Mr. Macron’s bid for office a “shooting star.” One of his finance and economy minister predecessors predicted, “He won’t last five minutes with the bad guys in the campaign.”
But Mr. Macron “continued to confound opponents and pundits by building up huge grassroots support and winning endorsements from defecting center-left and center-right politicians,” Reuters reported. Flattering media coverage and stumbles of his more experienced opponents helped him surge to the front of the race alongside Ms. Le Pen.
Mr. Macron promoted centrist policies, which garnered support from both sides of the political spectrum. Right-leaning supporters took to his business credentials as a finance minister, as well as his proposals to cut corporate taxes and devote resources to defense, energy and transportation. Those on the left favored his promises to cut housing taxes, expand state healthcare coverage, invest in training programs for the unemployed, and devote resources to the environment.
While Ms. Le Pen had previously run three times for the presidency and adopted a more radical agenda, the politically inexperienced Mr. Macron had more public appeal in a time when citizens were largely fed up with established political parties.
Another reason for Mr. Macron’s unexpected rise is both his similarities and differences to U.S. President Trump.
According to Business Insider, candidate Macron painted “himself as a maverick and anti-establishment,” and, like Mr. Trump, “Macron has been successful in part because he is seen as not being part of the political elite.”
Now that Mr. Macron is in office, he has become “one of the clearest global counterpoints to Trump,” according to Time. The French president “is seeking to position himself as the world’s anti-Trump, on issues from globalization and the environment to human rights. It’s a move that brings short-term benefits, but carries long-term risks.”
One of the benefits of framing himself as a bulwark against the U.S. president, who is deeply distrusted in Europe, is the positive press it garners. This was evident during the NATO summit in Brussels and the G-7 summit in Sicily “where Trump scolded leaders for too-low defense spending, and hinted he would cancel the U.S. commitment to the global climate-change treaty, known as the Paris Agreement” (ibid.).
Viral videos and reports of their tense exchanges and white-knuckle handshakes confirmed that Mr. Macron was sending a message to the American president: “I will not be intimidated.”
Mr. Macron even responded to Mr. Trump’s decision to pull America out of the Paris Agreement with a televised speech in fluent English: “To all scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, responsible citizens who were disappointed by the decision of the president of the United States, I want to say, that they will find in France a second homeland. I call on them. Come, and work here with us, to work together on concrete solutions for our climate, our environment. I can assure you, France will not give up the fight. I reaffirm clearly that the Paris Agreement remains irreversible, and remains implemented, not just by France, but by all the other nations.”
He concluded: “Make our planet great again.”
However, there is a delicate balance between working against and working with the American president. Mr. Macron is aware that the success of his agenda—and France—depends on the world’s most powerful and wealthy nation.
As such, Mr. Macron invited the American leader to Paris for Bastille Day celebrations, including a meal in the Eiffel Tower.
Following the visit, Mr. Macron stated that he intends to change Mr. Trump’s mind on the Paris Agreement using a “charm offensive.” According to le Journal du Dimanche, he said that Mr. Trump “understood the sense of my approach…He told me he would try to find a solution in the coming months.”
Then, Mr. Macron’s policy proposals began to reflect those of Mr. Trump’s administration. Part of his plan to reinvigorate the ailing French economy: slash corporate taxes to promote economic growth and reduce the public spending by 60 billion euros.
Mr. Macron also described Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad as an enemy of the Syrian people, and threatened that the “use of chemical weapons will see a response, including by France alone,” according to Reuters. “France will therefore be completely aligned with the United States on this.”
“Did someone from Trump’s team get to French President Macron at the recent G20 Summit?” Vladimir Signorelli, founder of investment research firm Bretton Woods Research in New Jersey, wrote in a note to clients. “That’s the question we’re asking ourselves as we see France beginning to row in the same direction with U.S. policymaking on taxes, Syria and Russia.”
And similar to Mr. Trump, whose first year in office has begun to test his policies, Mr. Macron’s policies are being held up to the light.
While Mr. Macron’s first few months in office have been characterized by optimism and powerful promises, uncertainty remains.
“If there are reservations about Mr Macron’s ability to lead, they concern his untested political resolve,” The Economist reported. “Faced with a fractured country, restless unions and a potentially unstable parliament after legislative elections in June, would he have what it takes to stave off, or withstand, revolt? ‘He is fearless,’ says a team member, pointing to the way that he, a newcomer to elections, has swept aside political veterans and is now dictating terms to them.”
For example, one of Mr. Macron’s reforms to tackle the budget deficit includes cutting the number of lawmakers in parliament by a third and slashing 120,000 public sector jobs. He announced to parliament while attempting to push through these measures: “I want all these deep reforms that our institutions seriously need to be done within a year. These reforms will go to parliament but, if necessary, I will put them to voters in a referendum.”
But others see this as all charm—the same old wine in a shiny new bottle. One person told The Local that Mr. Macron won simply because he “is the lesser evil.”
BBC News wrote that what got the French president into power was his ability to play on the hopes of common French laborers, the frustrations of corporate owners, and the overall desire for change, modernity and youth to replace the established French government. However, the news agency stated that “he won’t be able to govern that way. He has five years to solve France’s problems, or risk at choosing more radical change next time.”
Then again, this is the same man who found success even when the odds seemed stacked against him.