As French elections loom, Macron tries to strike a balance


PARIS — Rarely has a modern French leader embraced the powers of the presidency so forcefully as Emmanuel Macron. From his first days in power, Mr Macron was referred to by the media as “Jupiter”, the king of the gods who ruled by throwing lightning.

But while that image helped Mr. Macon push his agenda, it also made him a particular hotbed of anger among his opponents in an extraordinary way, even by the standards of a country where the power of the presidency has little equivalent in other western democracies. “Death to the King” has been a frequent cry in recent years at street protests, as well as makeshift guillotines.

As the April elections approach, that image has also become a political liability and has left Mr Macron struggling to strike the right balance between quasi-king and electoral candidate in a political culture that oscillates between an attachment to the monarchy and a penchant for regicide.

“I am someone who is quite emotional, but who hides it,” the president said, looking down in the gilded ballroom of the Élysée, during a recent two-hour television interview. “I’m quite a human being, I think,” he said.

Mr. Macron, writes the newspaper Le Monde, sought to “symbolically kill Jupiter”.

Yet Mr Macron has taken full advantage of presidential prerogatives to avoid declaring his candidacy for a second term so far – even if this is considered inevitable. This allowed him to delay the descent from the throne of the “republican monarch”, as the presidency is sometimes called, to engage in an early battle with his opponents.

Instead, in the face of mounting criticism, he campaigned stealthily for months, reaching out to voters and leaving opponents to bicker among themselves.

“His aim is to show that he is a good-humored monarch, a human monarch, but with authority,” said Jean Garrigues, a prominent historian of French political culture. “The goal of his challengers is to show Macron as a powerless monarch, someone who has the powers of a monarch, but is unable to use them.”

“It’s the great French paradox,” added Mr. Garrigues. “A people in constant search of participatory democracy which, at the same time, expects everything from its monarch.”

The French president as a “republican monarch” was the product of the father of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle. The wartime hero and peacetime leader, through a contested national referendum in 1962, transformed the presidency into a personalized office, elected by the people, an all-powerful providential figure.

“You have power around a man who is the most powerful politician in his system among all Western nations,” said Vincent Martigny, a professor of political science at the University of Nice and an expert in leadership in the democracies. “There is no equivalent of the power of the president of the republic, with such weak controls.”

Under Mr. Macron, the National Assembly has become even less of a counterweight. His party, La République en Marche, was a vehicle he created for his candidacy; many of its legislators, who hold a majority in the National Assembly, are neophytes who are beholden to it.

Experts say Mr Macron chose two weak prime ministers in a bid to exert direct control over the government, even replacing his first prime minister after he became too popular. At the same time, as president, Mr Macron is not held accountable to parliament, unlike prime ministers.

“We should not mix the roles of president and prime minister,” said Philippe Bas, a center-right senator who served as secretary general under President Jacques Chirac at the Élysée Palace. “What Macron has done is absorb the job of prime minister, which is a problem because he can’t stand in parliament to defend his bills.”

This imbalance has allowed Mr Macron to push economic reforms through parliament, sometimes with little consultation – or without a vote, in the case of an overhaul of the French pension system that had sparked weeks of strikes and protests. street, but was eventually suspended. because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Macron oversaw a crackdown on Yellow Vest protesters that raised the issue of police violence nationwide. His pandemic measures were passed behind closed doors of a “defense council” and included a state of emergency and one of the strictest lockdowns among democracies. He broke an earlier promise to empower Parliament by introducing proportional representation.

Mr. Macron’s full embrace of presidential prerogatives and his image of distance have combined to expose the limits of France’s democratic institutions, Mr. Martigny said. Protesters have directed their anger at Mr Macron, he added, as Parliament and other increasingly weak government institutions are unable to address their concerns.

“Doubts about the institution of the presidency were much more evident during Macron’s five years in office, especially during the yellow vests crisis, which showed that there was a real problem with the system,” he said. Mr. Martigny.

He added that Mr Macron had tried to circumvent institutional limits with democratic experiments. He defused the Yellow Vest protests, which were sparked by a gas tax hike, by single-handedly engaging in marathon town hall events for two months in a “big debate”. And he announced the creation of a citizens’ panel to develop proposals on climate change.

But the experiments simply showed that power flowed through the presidency, Mr. Martigny said. “The debate ended abruptly,” he said.

Brice Teinturier, the director of polling firm Ipsos in France, said Mr Macron, realizing his Jupiterian image was a liability during the Yellow Vests crisis, has now largely succeeded in transforming his strong “Bonapartist” style into a electoral advantage. He noted that 60% of voters said Mr Macron had presidential stature, 20 percentage points higher than his closest rivals.

“Even those who did not vote for him recognize this presidential dimension in him,” said Mr. Teinturier. “It’s based on a mixture of personification, decision-making, a flamboyant style, too much for some, which brings back an image of arrogance that still sticks to him. But it commands admiration.

Outside France, with his speech of “start-up nation” and transcendence of traditional politics, Mr. Macron very early on projected an image of modernity. But in France, even before running for president in 2016, he had raised eyebrows with what Mr Garrigues, the historian, called an “almost reactionary conception” of the presidency.

Mr Macron rejected attempts by his two predecessors to modernize the institution, Mr Garrigues said. In a 2015 interview with Le 1 magazine, Mr. Macron said that democracies were incomplete. “In French politics,” he said, “the absent figure is that of the king, whose death I fundamentally think the French people did not want.”

Once elected, Mr Macron strove to fill that supposed void – delivering his victory speech outside the Louvre, the former royal residence, and visiting the tombs of former kings at the Basilica of Saint-Denis. His spokesman at the time even called squeezing Mr Macron’s flesh into the crowd a “form of transcendence”: “The king touches you, God heals you”.

Gaspard Koenig, a philosopher who embarked on a quixotic presidential campaign, described de Gaulle’s transformation of the presidency as a “democratic trauma” for France. The current system inspires unrealistic expectations among voters, who are increasingly disillusioned, he said.

“A man is supposed to save everyone and is guilty of all the wrongs of the country,” Mr Koenig said.

Even though Mr Macron has tried to shed his Jupiterian image, in his recent interview he still spoke of the royal grandeur of the Élysée ballroom, noted Alexis Lévrier, a historian who has analyzed the relationship of Mr. Macron with the media. At times he slipped into the tone of a king addressing his people, though now perhaps kinder than before, Levrier added.

Mr Macron admitted to saying hurtful things during his presidency, such as describing society as divided between “successful people and people who are nothing”. He had learned, he said.

As the television camera framed Mr Macron’s face in close-up, he said he had learned “to love” the French better, “with more indulgence, benevolence”.


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