Since his re-election almost three months ago, President Macron has been strangely quiet, almost invisible at times. There have been rumours that he was physically and emotionally exhausted after back-to-back domestic and global crises and a difficult election campaign.
He took a month to choose a new Prime Minister and government and then was all but absent during the even tougher parliamentary elections last month. Result: a poor performance which robbed his centrist alliance of its absolute majority in the National Assembly.
A comparatively bouncy and combative Macron re-appeared on French television screens yesterday. He gave an hour-long interview for France’s National Day — a traditional exercise which he scorned on several occasions during his first five year term.
Suggestions that he had plunged into a post-electoral blues — a period of “flottement” or wandering indecision — were put to him by one of the two interviewers. Macron brushed away the rumours with a grin (but did not formally deny them). “I’m always very touched when people are concerned for my well-being,” he said.
The French president denied that his lack of a parliamentary majority has left him as a 44-year-old lame duck, with almost five years of his mandate to run.
He was confident, he said, that a “spirit of responsibility” and “compromise” would prevail in the new National Assembly. He said he hoped that his government would be able to push through his election pledges to increase the French retirement age and stiffen the conditions for unemployment pay.
How likely is that? Not very. The first couple of weeks of the new Assembly, with large blocs of far-Right and hard-Left deputies, have been rude, noisy and bad-tempered.
The government lost a routine vote on continuing anti-Covid measures, on Tuesday. That was probably a one-off.
It should be possible for Macron’s Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, to assemble majorities for day-to-day business, like a €20bn package of anti-inflation measures which will go before the assembly next week.
All the same, it is difficult to imagine this jaggedly divided Assembly will agree to radical reform of anything — let alone something so explosive as pension reform.
Macron admitted in another part of yesterday’s TV interview that his second term will be different from his first. He was asked if he still regarded himself as an all-commanding “Jupiter”. He denied that he had ever made such a claim but said that he now saw himself as more like Vulcan, labouring over his forge to deal with the interlocked Ukraine and cost-of-living crises.
A question therefore arises. How weakened is Macron? After his re-election in April, it seemed that he was the natural heir to Angela Merkel, not as Europe’s “leader” but as its dominant figure.
His position has now apparently been undermined in two ways: first, by his lack of a parliamentary majority; second, by the eastern European anger at his repeated assertion that the West should not seek to “humiliate” Russia (not Vladimir Putin, but Russia).
Macron’s use of that word (against French foreign service advice) is regarded by some in Paris as part of his period of “flottemment”, or stubborn indecision, in May and June. He has recently taken care to state more clearly that France is on the side of Ukraine “until victory”.
Neither domestic political weakness nor a cautious view on western war aims will necessarily curb Macron’s ambitions to play a leadership role in the European Union in the next five years.
The bigger question is whether Macron still has the mental energy and determination to impose himself in Brussels.
His performance yesterday suggests that, whether Jupiter or Vulcan, he shouldn’t be counted out yet.