Less god than boy-king. Credit: Chesnot/Getty

January 11, 2021   6 mins

A president in his last days in office, flailing and failing. No, not Donald Trump: Emmanuel Macron. Elected to the Élysée Palace in 2017, Macron was meant to be the West’s wunderkind, the thinking person’s politician who would escape the tectonic plates of the Socialists and the Republicans, the two parties that have alternated power forever in France. He was the smart-as-paint former minister of François Hollande (read: caring, moderate Leftie decrying “social and statutory conservatism”), but from a banking background (read: sensible, fiscal Rightist). He was the liberal solution to populism in Europe — the antidote to Salvini, Orban, and, of course, France’s very own Marine Le Pen of the National Front.

Macron was the centrist modernist who was going to lead a tradition-shackled nation into a brave, new de-regulated future. His embrace of opposing ideologies, akin to Tony Blair’s “triangulation”, even had its own fond nickname: l’en-même-temps-ism, “both-sides-at-the-same-time-ism”.

It has all gone wrong. These days Macron cannot put an expensively-shoed foot right. Always, he steps in the merde. The laws on retirement reform and unemployment assistance? Suspended. Deficit and debt are going through the roof, while GDP is going through the floor; GDP decline in France in 2020 was 10%, double that of Germany. After a spate of Islamist terror attacks — France is the worst hit of all western nations, 270 deaths since 2012 — Macron has pushed forward a bill on security that has caused a crisis because of a provision restricting the filming of police officers. Human rights groups have shouted foul (thus denting Macron’s socially liberal image just a tad). The anti-lslamist war in the Sahel has become bogged down in the dust and the sand.

And, as if all this were not enough, Macron has mismanaged the Covid crisis. France, now on her second lockdown, has one of the highest infection rates in the developed world; the official death toll of 43,000 fails to adequately account for mortality in the maison. The country is under 8pm curfew, except for those areas where it is …6pm curfew. Everywhere, bars, restaurants and cinemas are shut. It might just be me, but Alouette radio seems to be playing The Specials Ghost Town rather a lot nowadays. Oh, and the ‘speedy’ virus variant that swept Britain is now out and about in France.

Then, there is the debacle of covid vaccination. According to the French health ministry, just 516 people had received the vaccination by January 3; in the same time frame, 200,000 people were immunised in Germany. In Bloomberg’s global vaccination tracker France is second…from last.

The deputy president of National Rally (née National Front), Jordan Bardella, declared that France had become the “laughing stock of the world”. Bardella could be expected to take a jab at Macron; more worrying for the President was the attitude of the French media whose default stance is to throw itself as an ideological Praetorian Guard around him (elites recognise their own with the keen certitude of dogs sniffing bottoms), but even Le Monde was prompted to ask, “Is France getting the dunce’s hat in Europe for vaccinations?”

There are just over 440 days before the next presidential election in France, and Macron unashamedly kicked off campaigning with his address to the nation on New Year’s Eve. He was not convincing. Usually, he manages the facsimile of Napoleonic grandeur in such broadcasts; this time he impersonated a snake-oil salesman. He tried to sell us a vision of a France resurgent by springtime, aided and abetted economically by an ever bigger and more prosperous EU, and with the Hexagon’s inhabitants blossoming in health due to vaccination.

Some hope. Aside from the problems with roll-out, an opinion poll by Ipsos Global Advisor indicates just 40% of French intend to have the coronavirus vaccine.

Or indeed, Macron’s medicine generally. The President’s fiscal policies have mostly helped the wealthy — despite increased state spending to defuse the Gilets Jaunes protests — and remain unpopular outside Paris’ plushest Arrondissements. The domestic political schedule is, to put it euphemistically, challenging, beginning with next month’s “law consolidating republican principles” intended to reinforce French life against any group or ideology that promotes its own agenda at the expense of liberty, equality and fraternity. While the government claims complete neutrality, absolutely no one is persuaded. Not least France’s large Muslim population.

Truth be told, Macron looks odder and more remote every passing day. While France suffers, the President spends  £540,709 per annum… on flowers. Beleaguered, and unpopular — his ratings are just 34% favourable — Macron has one tactic, and one tactic only for re-election, which is to tack Right, where the votes seem to be, given the laughable nature of the French Left. Then further Right again.

Reshuffling his cabinet, Macron replaced, significantly and signally, his Left-leaning interior minister with a conservative law-and-order hard-liner, Gérald Darmanin. Once upon a liberal dream time, Macron expressed scepticism about laïcité, the strict application of the secularism so dear to the heart of France, warning it could be used as a weapon against Islam. These days, he tells L’Express magazine: “They said I was a multiculturalist and I never was”, and gets Darmanin to helm the law on republican principles. When asked by online news site Brut whether he was concerned that his global image had changed from that of a “modern, liberal president” to “an authoritarian president”, Macron answered simply, “I don’t care.”

But nothing, nothing has so intrigued the watchers of political weather and Macron’s voyage rightwards than the recently reported lunch in a Montparnasse brasserie between Macron’s advisor Bruno Roger-Petit and Marion Maréchal. The niece of Marine Le Pen, and ex-RN deputy for Vaucluse, Maréchal is the Great Hard Right Hope of France, the beautiful princess across the Loire. Whether Roger-Petit was picking up political tips, or divining Maréchal’s presidential intentions is unknown. She has declared she has no wish for confrontation with her aunt, and disavowed running in 2022. But who knows?

Macron’s enthusiastic embrace of law-and-order and nationalist themes has — quelle surprise! — reduced Left support for his party, La République en Marche! Some 36 red/green LREM deputies have quit the fold in France’s lower house, depriving Macron of an outright majority. LREM is expected to be all but wiped-out in this summer’s nation-wide local elections. Mind you, LREM was never much more than a fissiparous fan-club for Manu.

It is not just on the home front that Macron has dropped the liberal, cultured clothing to reveal himself a puny De Gaulle seeking a chest-expander. On matters foreign, he has taken to Trump-type Twitter diplomacy, calling Nato “brain dead” and regularly chiding other national leaders — though chippily brooking no external criticism himself. When Greece and Turkey spatted last year Macron engaged in gunboat diplomacy. Literally. He sent a frigate to their end of the Med.

Gone, too, is Macron’s globalist vision, to be replaced by Fortress France thinking. Only the other day he was down on the Spanish frontier, promising to stop illegal immigration by doubling border guard numbers to 4,800. Schengen free travel anyone? On 7 January, the border with Britain was once again shut to keep out the plague. (Mind you, I am not sure anyone can blame him for that, given that Bungling Boris is more than a match for Mismanaging Macron in covid containment.)

All of which leads to Président cambrioleur (The Burglar President), the recently published biography of Macron by journalist Corinne Lhaïk, who has shadowed her man for over a decade. The book is written with the cooperation of Manu and his wife Brigitte, but whether such aid was wise or an arrogant folly is arguable, to say the least.

Oui, Macron emerges from Lhaïk’s pages as cultivated, brainy, possessed of superior “abstract intelligence” — an absolute plus in France, which does not share the English contempt for intellectuals. Lhaïk finds something touching too in his marriage to Brigitte, who “humanises him”. He needs it, since the Macron revealed by Lhaïk — who is, by the way, neither political dirt-digger or publishing gold-digger — is damning.

Macron is exposed as a political novice, unable to understand the relationship between the Elysee and Hotel Matignon, the residence of the prime minister, and burdened by the autocratic misapprehension that his word is a reality implemented.

It gets worse. Macron has a “brat side”, a tendency to childish provocation, and “lacks emotional intelligence”. He whines, just as Valéry Giscard d´Estaing did, that the French misunderstand him (“The French do not know who I am”), just as his family failed to comprehend his schoolboy absquatulation with Brigitte, his drama teacher and 26 years his senior.

He cannot delegate, or choose the right people, and is uninterested in the necessary presidential political art of winning friends and influencing people. So, even with the war in the Sahel — where some 6,000 French troops are valiantly, gloriously holding the line against Islamic insurgents, a just war if ever there there was one — receives next to no support from the Western powers it protects. Macron has utterly failed to build an international coalition of the willing.

The Macron in these pages has no core values, but keeps himself in power “by pecking the crumbs” of other people’s ideas — then opportunistically dropping them, embracing others if the public appetite changes. He might not be the West’s most unpopular and villainous president right now, but the man once nicknamed Jupiter for his lack of humility now resembles less a god than a Dauphin.

John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.