President Macron needs to show more pride in France – or risk losing its support entirely

Comment Current Affairs

Image credit: Gouvernement français 

The night of 7 May 2017, the courtyard of the Louvre was packed full of Macron’s supporters, celebrating his victory. Surrounded by the finest art and sculptures in France, the crowds waved tricolour flags and sang along as “La Marseillaise” blared from massive speakers. As Emmanuel Macron walked out onto the stage, alongside his family and colleagues, the crowd cheered and “Ode to Joy” – the official anthem of the EU – began to play. The scene of celebration, of patriotism, was inspiring, even to me as an English person. As I looked around and took in the moment, I did, however, have to wonder how long this elation would last…

It did not take too long for my question to be answered. Ever since his election, Macron’s approval ratings have been on a downward spiral. This is nothing unusual – no president or prime minister ever fulfils all of their promises. It is especially true in France: the French have a reputation for drastically turning on their presidents. Nevertheless, Macron’s current approval rating of around 29% is particularly dismal.

Not only is it his personal all-time low rating, it is even worse than François Hollande’s approval rating at this stage into his presidency (16 months in). Hollande turned out to be the least popular French president of all time – only a shocking 4% of the French population approved of his presidency by 2016. It is looking rather worrying for Macron.

The group who approve of Macron the least are young people – ages 18-24. 78% of people in this age-group disapprove of the current president. However, this is nothing unusual; younger people, in general, tend to be more anti-establishment. Not only does Macron represent the government, but he also represents big businesses. He is considered as the ‘Pro-Business President’. We must consider that in the final round of voting, the choice facing the French electorate was between Macon and Marine Le Pen of the infamous National Front party (since renamed National Rally). Whilst the majority of voters were relieved at Le Pen not gaining power, many were not much impressed by Macron and his policies either – especially in the case of the younger voters who celebrated his victory as a lesser of two evils.

It is not just the young demographic who are frustrated by Macron, the working-class voters are also unsatisfied by him. A lot of people find him patronising and feel that he does not care about their concerns. At the end of August, whilst in Copenhagen, Macron compared the French people to the Danish. He said that whilst the Danish people were open to change and progress, the French were ‘Gaulois réfractaires au changement’ (Gauls who are resistant to change). This comment was made in relation to what Macron considers as resistance to the cultural reforms he has been making, especially with regard to changes to labour and economic models, both of which are more flexible in Denmark. Whilst Macron later stated that this comment was intended to be humorous, it was met inevitably with anger.

“Whilst the majority of voters were relieved at Le Pen not gaining power, many were not much impressed by Macron and his policies either”

Many people in France have been infuriated by Macron’s comment, declaring that he is demonstrating contempt for his own people. It is especially derogatory that he did so while abroad, suggesting that the Danish are a more advanced race than the French and so humiliating his own nation in the process. Furthermore, countless people feel patronised by the comment as Macron seems to state that they do not know what is best for them. The French are notoriously a very proud nation, so for their president to suggest that their laws, traditions and customs are out-dated and that the people are merely stuck in their ways seems very unpatriotic. But it is not just the public who have been angered by these comments, it is also Macron’s opposition.

Politicians from opposition parties have also been criticising Macron for his comments, both those made recently and similar ones over the course of his presidency. Marine Le Pen, who lost out to Macron at the final hurdle of the 2017 presidential election, has been one of the key politicians to jump on this. She, along with politicians from other parties, are using Macron’s remarks to demonstrate that he is out of touch with the French people and that, by contrast, their respective parties represent the common man or woman in France.

It is not just his comment in recent weeks which have outraged people. Throughout his presidency, many observe that Macron has been attempting to negate the French identity. He is openly a very pro-EU politician and states that the French identity and an EU identity should co-exist within French society. This, however, is often seen as patronising and offensive to a proud French people, especially to the older generations and the more traditionally conservative voters. Even those who are pro-EU often struggle to accept what can considered as constant insults to French culture and society from its own president. 

We must ask ourselves, however, how significant are these opinions polls? In France, it is very typical for the president to fair badly. It is important to consider whether, when asked their opinion on the president, people base their answers on the policies and the results of the government or on a purely subjective opinion of the leader. It is entirely natural for approval ratings to decrease in the first year after election: every presidential candidate makes myriad promises and when they do not stick to some (or in some cases any) of them, people become frustrated, even angered. Macron’s struggle does come at a particularly significant time, however, in terms of EU politics.

“The French are notoriously a very proud nation, so for their president to suggest that their laws, traditions and customs are out-dated and that the people are merely stuck in their ways seems very unpatriotic.”

Next May, the European Parliament elections take place in France. According to the polls, Eurosceptic parties across Europe are likely to increase the number of seats that they hold in the European Parliament by around 60%. This could enormously affect the progression of the EU. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally – re-branded from the National Front last year in an attempt to move away from associations with racism – is set to significantly increase its number of seats. Some people question whether this could encourage a ‘Frexit’. Whilst National Rally, unlike the National Front, does not directly call for France to leave the EU and the Eurozone, there is no doubt that Marine Le Pen and NR remain strongly Eurosceptic.

Overall, it is clear that Macron is struggling. Strikes, unpopular reforms, controversy…Macron has must strategise prudently in order to encourage the public to vote for his party, La République En Marche!, in the upcoming EU elections. One thing is certain, if he wants to win over the French electorate then he needs to stop insulting them, whether in a joking manner or otherwise, and demonstrate some of the patriotism that we witnessed on the night of his election. This is compatible with his EU politics, but he should not sacrifice French national pride and identity in order to achieve this.