The Humbling of Emmanuel Macron

The French president’s struggle to get a grip on the Covid-19 pandemic has undermined him at home and abroad and left him casting around for a strategyBy May 10, 2020, 7:05 AM EDT

Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron Photographer: Francois Mori/AFP via Getty Images

Sign up here for our daily coronavirus newsletter on what you need to know, and subscribe to our Covid-19 podcast for the latest news and analysis.

For a man who had aspired to rule like a Roman god, the pandemic has left Emmanuel Macron’s vision of a multilateral world order in tatters and his own leadership back in France in question.

Just four months ago, with the gardens of his Elysee Palace in the background, the youngest French head of state since Napoleon boasted that the country “hasn’t known such energy in years.” With re-election two years away, he vowed his plans to cut taxes and reduce red tape would put France at the heart of a reinvigorated European Union.

Today, such confidence seems a world away after his struggle to get a grip on the coronavirus epidemic left Macron damaged at home and abroad. 

The EU’s second-biggest economy registered its first case of Covid-19 in January but for weeks the government insisted that wearing a facemask was useless for the public, even as the disease coursed through French society. Macron didn’t impose a lockdown until March, when Italy and Spain had already shuttered most businesses. In a dramatic U-turn, the government is now encouraging people to wear masks when venturing outdoors.

One official in his office, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the government fumbled its response in the early stages, but insisted it has the situation under control now. Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye told Europe 1 radio Friday that the policy on masks had evolved along with the scientific advice.  A press officer at the Elysee declined to comment. 

Funeral Services as French Virus Cases Exceed 165,000
Father Bruno Lefevre Pontalis walks behind pall bearers carrying a coffin past empty pews in the nave of Saint Francois Xavier church during the funeral service of a coronavirus victim in Paris on April 16.Photographer: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

As the death toll in France climbed past 25,000, the president’s dithering was in stark contrast to Angela Merkel’s sober, methodical approach next door in Germany.

Macron had seemed to eclipse the German chancellor when he burst onto the stage in 2017, with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the European anthem, at his election-night rally. But as France tries to return to a new kind of normality with the tentative reopening of its economy on Monday, it’s piling up debt while Merkel has fiscal reserves to spare. Put simply, France will struggle to spend its way out the recession in the same way as its neighbor.

For a politician who’s gone toe-to-toe with Donald Trump and urged the EU to stand up to China, the scale of the crisis and his own role in it has forced a degree of introspection. As he said in one of several televised statements in April, “it’s a moment to start again from scratch.”

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was too early to say who had handled the crisis better and pointed to France’s successes, such as treating its gravest cases in hospitals and coordinating with international allies on a vaccine conference.

With his approval ratings slipping, Macron himself has also recognized that his administration fell short. “Were we prepared for this crisis? Obviously, not enough,’’ he said last month. “This moment, let’s be honest, has revealed cracks.’’

For Philippe Maniere, president of crisis management consultancy Vae Solis, Macron’s making a political calculation. “He needs to change course to get back on his feet — he’s being tactical,” he said. 

Even before the crisis there were signs that Macron might have to adjust his approach, with his lectures on everything from Iran to climate change at global summits failing to produce results, despite the personal chemistry he seemed to enjoy with the U.S. president.

Macron couldn’t persuade Trump to stick with the Paris Climate Agreement, failed to keep the U.S. in the Iran nuclear deal or indeed stop it undermining the World Trade Organization. When Macron pursued a coordinated international push for a coronavirus vaccine, it became clear the U.S. was out for itself. White House tariff threats meanwhile forced the French president to suspend his plans to tax internet giants like Google and Inc. on their revenue from France.

Iconic Landmarks As Parisians Cope With Life Under Lockdown
A pedestrian passes the archways of the Bir Hakeim bridge near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on April 4.Photographer: Cyril Marcilhacy/Bloomberg

At home, his first wobble came after the Yellow Vest protests – a movement sparked by a hike in gasoline taxes but fundamentally driven by anger at economic injustice and perceptions of the president’s at times arrogant manner. The seeds were sown as far back as 2018, when he ruffled feathers with a video that went viral of him scolding a teenager for not addressing him as “Mr. President” and spoke to the nation about inequality from a gold desk.

Outside France, his demand for EU reform had become increasingly shrill as opponents like the Dutch and the Austrians stonewalled his calls for tighter integration or, when he did win support for a euro-area budget, diluted his original proposals to the point of irrelevance.

All this meant that when disaster struck, his political capital was running low. With his handling of the virus coming under fire in France, his credibility with EU partners was further weakened and calls for joint euro-area bond issuance to fund the economic recovery were easily brushed off. His fall-back proposal of grants from an EU fund has fared little better so far.

Macron’s warnings that the EU risks collapse if the Dutch don’t accept his demands grow more hollow with each repetition.

Perhaps expectations were too great when he came to power in the aftermath of Trump’s shocking election victory and the Brexit referendum, promising a progressive renewal for France and Europe. Perhaps he was guilty of fueling those expectations with his pre-election talk of how France wanted its president to be god-like. But the impression among some European officials now is, ‘who is he to tell us what to do’?

Paris Commuters as Europe's Wary Reopening Begins
Social distancing floor markers sit on the concourse of Gare du Nord railway station in Paris on May 4.Photographer: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

If Macron is realizing that he may never strike the grand bargain he wants for Europe, disenchantment with the political prodigy set in even sooner back home.

Like most world leaders, Macron initially failed to grasp the dangers of Covid-19 and as March’s municipal elections approached with Italy and then Spain in lockdown, calls mounted for the ballot to be delayed.

But Macron feared that would expose him to political attacks, so the vote went ahead, potentially exposing thousands of people to infection. A day later, the president who had vowed to rein in the state, announced 300 billion euros of government loan guarantees and halted his economic reforms. The government made clear it wouldn’t hesitate to take equity stakes in companies if necessary and the state is paying more than half the private sector workforce to stay home.

Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon attacked Macron for stealing his policy ideas. It’s an ironic political journey for Macron, the son of a doctor from northern France who studied at one of most prestigious institutions in Paris and worked as Rothschild & Co. investment banker. He’s spent more than a decade honing his world view among the educated, Parisian elites before he came to power promising to make France a “start-up nation” by paring back the role of the state and courting foreign investors.

But the truth is that Macron is grasping for a new identity. The Jupiter-like stance he’d envisaged before his election just an embarrassing memory.

Macron wears a protective mask during a visit to the military field hospital outside the Emile Muller Hospital in Mulhouse, eastern France, on March 25.Photographer: Mathieu Cugnot/AFP via Getty Images

In March, he portrayed himself as a wartime president, leading France into battle against the virus. This month he said it was a tiger – “The only way to prevent it eating us alive is to ride it,” he said. In another speech he evoked the spirit of the French revolution.

Once the pandemic is under control, France’s political class will begin to turn its attention to the presidential election due in 2022. And for the incumbent looking to secure a second term, there is one overriding question: What does Macron stand for now? His latest source of inspiration is Robinson Crusoe, famous castaway from 18th century literature.

“True idealists are great pragmatists,” he said last week speaking to a group of artists.

“When facing the shipwreck, Robinson doesn’t hold his head in his hands, trying to sketch a grand theory of the disaster,” the president continued emphatically. “He first takes the ham and the cheese with him. But inside, he has this capacity for reinvention.”

— With assistance by Caroline Alexander


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments