There’s a vacancy for the job of ‘Leader of the Free World’. The French President, Emmanuelle Macron, wants to fill it. The problem? Events, home and abroad, are leading elsewhere.
The picture at home is far from pretty. Last Saturday 300,000 people demonstrated in 2,000 locations after the price of diesel increased by 23% over the past year. Most vehicles in France use diesel. 400 people were injured and one person died in the ‘Yellow Vests’ protests named after the jackets worn by protest organisers. The protests continued on Sunday and Monday.
Macron introduced the price rises as part of his policy to wean France off fossil fuels. He also cut the speed limit on secondary roads from 90kph to 80. It hasn’t gone down well. Recent polls suggest ¾ of voters support the protests, and the President’s popularity has plunged to 25%. He’s been called ‘haughty’ a ‘President of the rich’ and an ‘out of touch urbanite’. The protests began as an online petition against the fuel price – they quickly became emblematic of wider discontent in a President who has only been in office for 18 months. His belated attempt to assuage the outpouring of rage was to acknowledge that ‘I hear the anger’.
Of course, his political rivals on left and right are keen to hear that anger directed at the President. However, they have their own difficulties – how to balance support for the demonstrators with their own green policies. A spot of linguistic and intellectual gymnastics has enabled them to declaim admiration and understanding for those on the streets while murmuring that perhaps blocking motorways and bridges was not the way ahead…
The domestic unrest, and distaste for a man increasingly seen as ‘part of the elite’, mirror the anti-elitist political climate seen elsewhere in the world, a climate in which his international ambitions will also run into roadblocks.
He used the recent First World War commemorations, and the launch of his Paris Peace Forum, to present himself as the leader able to stand up to populist nationalists and authoritarian regimes. He was already on record as saying nationalism was spread ‘like leprosy all around Europe’ and has picked fights with the Hungarian leader Viktor Orban who favours ‘illiberal democracy’ and Italy’s far right Matteo Salvini.
But he’s swimming against the tide both in Europe, where parties such as AFD in Germany, and the Sweden Democrats, are gaining support, and globally with the rise of authoritarian leaders such as Turkey’s Erdogan, India’s Modi, and Duterte of the Philippines.
His attempts to become ‘The Trump Whisperer’ – the man who could reign in the American leader have come to nothing. It ended badly with Trump mocking France’s fighting ability in two World Wars and Macron responding that Trump lacked ‘common decency’.
And now? Well, on the European front he still wants a more federal EU with a single budget for the countries using the Euro. There are no signs that enough of his fellow Europeans want to sign up to make that fly. He’s one of the backers of a European Army and has called on Germany to support the idea. However, his sometime ally Chancellor Merkel is on the way out, and until someone else is on their way into the Chancellery Germany’s views are in flux.
Next year we can measure if Macron’s views advance. He sees the EU parliamentary election in May as a chance to hold back nationalist parties. France will hold the Presidency of the G7 in 2019, and so Macron can set the agenda – we’ll see who follows.