Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, would surely have preferred to kick off the most important month of his young administration in a less precarious position. Last week, he unveiled his plans to reform France’s notoriously rigid labor market to grant more flexibility to small companies to directly negotiate some aspects of their contracts with employees, rather than involving the government, as was previously the case. His ability to take on one of the most radioactive issues in French politics, a reform he has repeatedly called his priority, will set the tone for the rest of his five-year term.
There is no serious institutional hurdle standing in Macron’s way. He boasts a large majority in the National Assembly, made up largely of novice lawmakers who pledged to support his platform during the campaign. They have granted him the authority to bypass parliamentary debate to pass these measures. He has also already received support from two of the three major labor unions.
Yet nothing will come easy for Macron. The Confederacy General of Labor, once France’s largest left-wing worker’s union, held a strike on Tuesday, while the far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon has called for his supporters to take the streets on the 23rd. Both are protesting the free-market orientation of Macron’s labor reforms. More problematic for Macron, though, is the 22-point drop in his popularity rating over the summer. At 40 percent, he is less popular than his two predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, at the same point in their first terms.
While the initial enthusiasm that drove Macron to victory—and that encouraged me to work as a U.S. representative for his campaign—has faded, there’s little to justify the widespread anger against him. Something deeper is at work. As a Frenchman living in Washington witnessing the rise of Donald Trump first hand, I came to see that, at heart, Macron’s fall reveals the profound challenges that moderate liberals face in a polarized political climate. As he pursues his reforms, he is also trying to reshape French politics, bringing together a coalition of reformists from both sides of the political aisle, elected with center-left votes but governing with a mostly center-right cabinet. But he will have trouble building a lasting base if he is seen only as a moderate technocrat—a fate he escaped during the campaign. His success or failure to hold the center in the face of populists may well shape the fate of liberals across Europe.
Macron’s political gamble succeeded, in part, because of the unpopularity of his chief opponents, the scandal-marred Francois Fillon of the right-wing Republicans party and the divisive Marine Le Pen of the National Front. More importantly, beyond his policy platform, he captured much of the anti-establishment anger sweeping France (and indeed, the world). In January, a vast majority of French voters felt their political leaders were “corrupt”; 49 percent wanted a “strongman that wouldn’t have to worry about parliament or elections.” He pledged to run against the failures of both traditional parties, and was well-positioned to do so: At the age of 39, he had never run for office, and built a party from scratch. Only five percent of the candidates he endorsed were incumbents—most had never run for office.
Following his victory, Macron weathered several early controversies—some more partisan than others, including the widely publicized resignation of the armed forces chief over proposed defense budget cuts, to his desire to grant official first-lady status to his wife. (He appeared to be trying to afford her a favored status after campaigning against such privileges, leading to disingenuous charges of favoritism and elitism.) He’s also been cast as controlling and overbearing. Paradoxically mocked for his desire to be a “Jupiter”—remote and mysterious, letting cabinet ministers deal with day-to-day policy squabbles—he is acting in precisely the opposite way from the Roman god. Instead, the Jupiterian Macron appears to be all-too-human: Perhaps because of his temperament, or because the media cycle dictates it, his communication style is frenetic, and he tends towards micromanagement—just like his predecessors.
But Macron is no failure. In addition to getting new candidates elected, he and his allies in parliament successfully passed a bill that sought to make France’s politics more transparent, and roll back the conflicts of interest that have poisoned the country’s institutions for decades, by imposing stricter controls on parliamentary spending. Furthermore, the inexperienced president’s first steps in the international arena, especially his handling of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, were largely hailed as successes. Now with his labor-market reforms, Macron continues to execute on his campaign promises.
Yet it’s easier to campaign on youthful liberalism than it is to hold together an enthusiastic new coalition while governing as a moderate reformer. Candidate Macron positioned himself as the direct challenger to the right-wing populist Le Pen, arguing that the real issues shaping the French political debate—free-market reform, Europe, globalization—transcended an obsolete right-left divide. In such an open versus closed contest, he was the liberal, pro-European reformer. He did not shy from defending the European Union, a rarity in French politics, especially in a time of rising euroskepticism.
On the campaign trial, Macron used Brexit to argue that a tired old defense of the EU on the basis of its costs and benefits simply won’t work in the face of its opponents. On the one side, David Cameron defended his deal with the EU as a balanced one that would allow Britain to remain in the single market while preserving opt-outs like the euro or Schengen, without ever actually making the case for Europe itself; on the other, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and UKIP, argued for the basic freedom and independence for Britons. The former, with its managerial technocratic insistence that populists and their ideas just “don’t work,” will always lose in the face of the latter’s blunter message.
Macron has recognized that a defense of European identity must be synonymous with a defense of French identity. Rather than playing it safe by shying away from these themes, he argued that liberal Europeans have abandoned the fight, and ran a very ideologically, unabashedly pro-European campaign, complete with EU flags flying at his rallies. He won because he combined some elements of populism while discarding the toxic ideas often associated with it.
I chose to work for Macron’s campaign specifically because he was the first liberal to shape his political message as a direct response to the rise of populists, in a way Remainers or Democrats hadn’t. Along the way, he convinced many moderates like me that a centrist campaign didn’t have to be boring or elitist. As such, he captured the center of gravity of French public opinion and stunned the Socialists and center-right Republicans who had shared power for half a century. Macron will succeed if he can durably reshape French political identity and create a strong center—that is to say, if he can convince liberals from both left and right to join him in a political force against extremists.
But it’s unclear whether voters will follow him down this path. After all, he captured only 24 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, and benefited from the collapse of the Socialist party after Hollande’s unsuccessful term. As the Socialist share in parliament fell from 295 to 31 seats, orphaned center-left voters turned to him. And yet, Macron’s cabinet tilts to the right, with a prime minister, economics minister, and budget minister, poached from the right-wing Republicans party. His first economic measures, from tax cuts to reduction in housing subsidies and labor market reforms, are drawn from the center-right. Macron may see all this as a way of building a new liberal pole that unites center-left and center-right. But disgruntled voters might see his triangulation as a betrayal.
Macron seems cautious not to appear as a mere technocrat. In a recent long interview with Le Point, he criticized France’s “flavorless democratic life” and the “collective stupidity that was the belief in the end of history.” For decades, France’s mainstream parties had alternated strategies against the insurgent National Front. Some, like most of the left, virtually ignored issues like immigration, even treating them as taboo; some on the right, like Sarkozy, tried co-opting some of its rhetoric. All along, political elites of both sides failed to craft an alternative political narrative to the National Front and Le Pen’s discourse of national sovereignty and French culture, and kept ceding ground to it, both in intellectual debate and at the ballot box. In the interview, Macron called for a renewed sense of “political heroism,” and for French politicians to reconnect with the country’s “historical narrative.” What all this means in practice is less clear.
It is perhaps on the European stage that Macron can reignite his presidency. In Athens last week, he defended a concept of European sovereignty that would protect citizens, economically and culturally and secure its border, seizing once again on the themes that have made populists successful but without their toxic nationalism.
So far, Macron’s poor ratings have not worn down his determination to pass his reform agenda—the country doesn’t have a choice. The labor reforms will bring much needed flexibility to the labor market to lower an unemployment rate that just recently got under 10 percent, and still hits close to 24 percent of youth under 25. But as large as his natural base may be, it is a fragile one, and voters may be tempted to revert to the Republicans and Socialists, or turn to the populist far-left and far-right. Mélenchon of the far left is emerging as the key opponent.
The lesson for Macron, then, is that governing from the center does not produce the same enthusiasm and vitality as a start-up campaign. Holding his majority will be a challenge, and attests to the scope of his political gambit when he started his run a year ago: reforming France while at the same time reshaping its politics. Can he create anything like “heroic” centrism? That will be his challenge. Liberals across Europe will watch closely.