Misfiring French President Emmanuel Macron desperate for a victory as magic starts to fade

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Published: September 17, 2018 3:18:39 PM

Jupiter is finding out how hard it is to make lightning strike twice.

French President Emmanuel Macron, jupiter, Angela Merkel, Nouriel Roubini, Elysee PalaceIn Europe, the sweeping vision of integration Macron outlined a year ago in Paris has largely been consigned to a drawer with his allies either weakened, wiped out or still to be convinced. (Reuters)

Jupiter is finding out how hard it is to make lightning strike twice.

Emmanuel Macron’s victory in last year’s French presidential race reverberated around the world, as he defied the rising tide of nationalism to strike a blow for Europe.

In the afterglow of success, the political prodigy likened himself to the Roman king of the gods—shooting lightning down from the Elysee Palace to impress mortals with his majesty. But lately, his powers have started to falter. With jockeying for next year’s European elections underway, he aims to show the magic hasn’t gone for good.

The 40-year-old president promised voters that he would transform their economic fortunes by reducing worker protection, improving access to job training, cutting taxes and addressing the problems at loss-making state-owned giants. He’s already pushed much of that agenda through, against the protests of his opponents, but the last few months have seen a string of setbacks, defeats and gaffes.

Economic growth has slowed and unemployment has barely budged. His plans for tighter integration in Europe have run into the sand – they won’t even be on the agenda when EU leaders meet Thursday in Salzburg. And for all his bonhomie with Donald Trump, he failed to convince the U.S. president to stick with the Iran nuclear agreement, to return to the Paris climate accord, or to spare Europe from steel and aluminum tariffs.

Perhaps worst of all, a breach has opened up between Macron and his voters as he prepares to tackle the toughest of all his reforms – modernizing the public pension system. In the second year of his presidency, Macron is now more unpopular than his hapless predecessor Francois Hollande.

“His first 15 months were beyond a honeymoon, he didn’t have any opposition to speak of,” said Enrico Letta, the former prime minister of Italy who advises Macron on his reform plans. “What we’re seeing now is a return to reality.”

As the mood around him sours, even Macron’s friends are starting to ask whether his soaring rhetoric will lead to any action in the real world that will improve voters’ lives.

The new star is fading while the continent’s established leader flexes her muscle once again.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reengaged with the international agenda after her domestic travails, discussing Syria and Ukraine with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in August and preparing for talks this month with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan likely to feature Turkey’s financial problems.

Domestically, Macron is safe with no presidential or parliamentary elections until 2022. But the next nine months may determine whether he can write himself into a new chapter of European history. Or become just a footnote.

Macron has staked his credibility on May’s European elections, when all member states will elect their representatives to the European Parliament. As the self-appointed leader of the campaign against populism, he’s looks to beat back the “illiberal” policies of opponents like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and has already visited Denmark, Finland, Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg.

“He has made it his cause,” said Jerome Fourquet, the head of public opinion at pollster Ifop. “He has invested everything in it.”

Fail again, and critics will say voters have no appetite for Macron’s grand ambitions to bind the economies of the euro area more tightly under a single finance minister, to harmonize tax systems and to make the EU a more cohesive actor in foreign policy with its own military force.

He is starting on the defensive.

An Odoxa poll published Thursday showed Marine Le Pen’s nationalists on 21 percent, just half a point behind Macron’s party. In another survey released Sunday, just 19 percent of respondents said the president is doing a good job. That’s a reminder that substantial numbers of voters are still opposed to his plans to free up the French economy and suspicious of his commitment to Europe.

Even if the presidential system is stacked against Le Pen, her strength drains momentum from Macron. With growth slowing across Europe, the risk is that mounting frustration among struggling workers, embittered bureaucrats and small-town folk raises the prospect of a runoff between Le Pen’s euroskeptics and the hard left in 2022 presidential race.

In Europe, the sweeping vision of integration Macron outlined a year ago in Paris has largely been consigned to a drawer with his allies either weakened, wiped out or still to be convinced.

Paolo Gentiloni was ousted by euroskeptics in Italy, nationalists are on the rise in Sweden and even Merkel is only partially by his side, her caution prevailing as she doubts the practicality of some of his proposals. Manfred Weber, her party’s candidate to head the European Commission, the EU’s top post, is lukewarm on integration.

“Weber is not Macron-compatible,” Letta said.

Macron began his preparations for the European election campaign convinced that like-minded parties would ditch their existing cross-border allegiances to rally around his banner, according to one person with knowledge of the negotiations. Not for the first time, he underestimated the power of European party structures and political tribalism.Merkel’s Christian Democrats are already embedded in the European People’s Party, the center-right alliance that commands the biggest group in the current legislature, and Gentiloni’s Democratic Party is part of the European Socialist Party. The EPP is wrestling with how to handle the increasingly authoritarian bent of its Hungarian member, Orban, but neither is ripe for disruption as Macron’s approach assumed.

Now he’s looking at a less dramatic shift, to bolt his two-year-old party onto the existing liberal group, just the fourth-biggest. The person said he expects a deal to be done, but time is running short before the potential allies meet in November in Madrid.

Macron argues that at least part of the hit to his support is because he moved quickly at the start of his mandate to introduce some of his toughest reforms for labor markets, corporate taxes and the national rail company. He’s betting that the benefit of those moves will become clear as the end of his term approaches and the threat to his reelection chances will abate.

“These sort of reforms imply some initial unpopularity, so what we’re seeing now is normal,” said Nouriel Roubini, chairman of Roubini Global Economics LLC in New York. “I’m confident we’ll start to see his reforms pay off.”

With Merkel into her final act as chancellor, Britain on the exit ramp and Italy in disarray, there will be an opening for a European leader who can rally voters across the continent.

Macron’s attempts to connect with voters outside France have occasionally backfired.

Last month in Copenhagen, tanned and rested from a French Riviera holiday, Macron spoke of Denmark’s “extraordinarily inspiring” progressive model as a precursor of what he wants to introduce at home.

“The Lutheran people, who have lived through transformations over the past decades are not quite like the obstinate Gauls who are resistant to change,” he told a crowd of French expats.

A yellow boat sailed gently across the harbor behind him. Guests laughed. His wife Brigitte and the Queen of Denmark applauded. But France erupted.

Opponents across the political spectrum said the comment was a sign of the president’s contempt for his people.

The criticism hit home because it played into Macron’s fundamental problem: voters think that Jupiter doesn’t understand and doesn’t care about their problems.

In Athens last year, the former investment banker said he wouldn’t let “lazy” French stop his reforms. In June he complained about the “crazy amount of dough” spent of social welfare and scolded a teenager for addressing him casually. In July, it emerged he’d declined to fire an aide filmed beating demonstrators at an anti-government protest. Just last week the president told an unemployed gardener he could find a job at once if he really wanted one, since bars and restaurants constantly need staff.

“I could cross the road and find you one,” Macron told the man.

Seventy-one percent of the French see Macron’s policies as “unjust” and 74 percent see him as favoring the rich, according to a July poll by Odoxa.“Treating the French as deplorable isn’t wise,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group consultancy. “He’s made some serious mistakes.”

His dismissal of the gardener aside, there has been a shift in recent weeks that suggests the president knows there’s a problem.

On a trip to Luxembourg in early September, he repeated over a dozen time in a three-minute answer to a reporter that he was “listening to fellow citizens.” Last Monday he visited a shelter for homeless people and on Thursday he unveiled a plan to fight poverty, telling an audience of struggling families he’d grasped how the system works against them.

“I’ve learned from you,” he said. “Too often we hide behind the figures, the reports, but to listen, to see you work, all these months, spending time with various different people, I have heard and I have understood.”

The speech could almost be read as a rebuke to the clique of smart young graduates from elite Paris schools that Macron plucked from plum jobs to surround him in the Elysee Palace. A reshuffle among his team adds to the sense of urgency. But public perceptions are hard to shift and many French people have made up their minds.

“The Macron magic has gone,” said Fourquet, the pollster. “He’s seen as normal now, just another president, and it will be a hard road back.”

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