The Macron Experiment

Emmanuel Macron’s popularity is falling, but don’t let that fool you — the real story is his En Marche! party. As Colin Horgan details, its development as a new kind of political party means Macron’s trajectory as France’s president will be full of surprises, if not promise. 

By: /
September 8, 2017
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech after a mass to pay tribute to French priest Father Jacques Hamel one year after he was killed by Islamist militants in an attack in the church, in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen, France, July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Charly Triballeau
Colin Horgan

writer and journalist 

Few past French presidents have ended their first summers in office quite like Emmanuel Macron has in 2017. At the same point in their presidencies, Macron’s predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, had the approval of 54 percent and 67 percent of French citizens, respectively. Macron’s approval numbers currently hover around 40 percent.

On its face, it is a dismal figure, and particularly so when considered against the popularity Macron appeared to enjoy at his election in May. In the second and final presidential vote against his far-right contender, Marine Le Pen, Macron won over 66 percent of the popular vote. It also appears to undercut the promising language Macron has used since he started his party, La République En Marche! (LREM or En Marche! for short), a year and a half ago — a message of hope that he and his supporters could build something better in France. 

There is a lot of work ahead for Macron to turn his personal popularity around. It will be a difficult task, given that his governance vision involves reforming some of France’s longstanding institutions. The headlines suggest he is failing already. But beyond the stories of Macron’s waning popularity is another tale, where the appearance of failure obscures the success so far of LREM. The movement Macron created has been updating itself in the face of opposition, and growing stronger along the way. So, if Macron can find success transitioning LREM from political movement to functional political party, can he execute a successful transition for France?

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Three days after the first round presidential votes, Macron went to Amiens, his working-class hometown in northern France. There, he met with striking union leaders from the local Whirlpool plant — due to close next year when production moves to Poland — at the local chamber of commerce.

The dispute at the plant was symbolic of the greater political debate playing out in France between those, like Macron, who believe in the European project, and those, like Le Pen, who do not. France, like a number of its richer counterparts in the European Union, has grappled with the threat of cheap labour from Eastern Europe undercutting domestic wages. As in the United Kingdom, fears over job losses or dampened wages have fuelled scepticism about the EU itself.

While Macron sat in a meeting in town, Le Pen took the opportunity to make a surprise visit to the plant. Macron, Le Pen said, was “with the oligarchs, with the employers,” while she was “where I should be, with the employees of Whirlpool who are fighting this uncontrolled globalization, this shameful economic model.” As Libération reported, the contrasting images were striking: Macron operating behind closed doors versus Le Pen, the ostensible people’s champion, in the parking lot, speaking out against the pan-European project Macron had long promoted. The gauntlet duly thrown, Macron made his way down to the picket line that afternoon, too. For two hours, he debated with workers, amid some jeers and boos.

Though the moment was seen as a test of Macron’s campaigning abilities — one he passed, showing he was able to engage with his political opponents, rather than simply remain removed from the fray — the contrast in imagery has haunted him through his first few months in office. 

Macron has made it no secret that he wishes to be seen as a transformative character in French history. His early public appearances have weighed heavy with imagery invoking the likes of Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand. His victory speech at the Louvre was prefaced by the EU’s anthem, the ‘Ode to Joy;’ his official portrait includes a de Gaulle book and a clock reminiscent of one featured in a famous painting of Napoleon. The evocations are deliberate. Macron aims to create the image of a president who governs as a quasi-monarchist — a “Jupiter” god overseeing from above.

So far, however, these moves have been met with scepticism or disdain. His attempt to create an official “first lady” position for his wife proved so unpopular the idea was scrapped; his personal makeup and hair bill, totalling €26,000 (Cnd$38,000) so far, has been the subject of much derision. Combined, they have validated what Le Pen conjured that day in Amiens: that Macron might just be the elitist she said he was.

“We are used to presidents intervening regularly in the media, explaining their policies, commenting on events,” says Ariane Bogain, a senior lecturer in French politics at Northumbria University. “Macron chose not to engage with the media in order to restore a certain presidential ‘mystique.’ The problem is that it creates an impression of aloofness.”

Some of Macron’s early policy moves have thus appeared like a double down on an already shaky bet — the kind of thing only worth attempting with political capital to spare.

For instance, the government — formed by LREM after it won a majority of seats in the Assemblée National a few weeks after Macron’s presidential win — has already tripped itself on a tax-cutting pledge (first saying it had to be delayed, then reversing that position after public outcry), announced unpopular housing benefit cuts, and implemented a public sector pay freeze that was opposed by 80 percent of affected workers. Macron also, in promising military budget cuts, caused a row with his defence minister, who quickly resigned.

But it is Macron’s planned overhaul of France’s 1,000-page, century-old labour code that may cause the most trouble. Macron is not the first with that ambition, but past attempts at reform — including most recently by Hollande in 2016 — have faced mass protest.

While all those stories were playing out, unrest also began within Macron’s own political movement. Behind the louder headlines, an echo of Macron’s personal aloofness and controversial policy positions could be heard, as En Marche! shifted from a political club to a structured party. Yet, LREM’s internal drama might be instructive for those looking ahead to what Macron may yet achieve as president.

Macron Whirlpool
Emmanuel Macron (C), head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, talks to Whirlpool employees in front of the company plant in Amiens, France, April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Macron formed La République En Marche! as a liberal political club, rather than a party, in April 2016. At the time, he was still Hollande’s minister for the economy, industry and digital affairs, and he initially told LREM’s supporters that running for president was not his priority. Instead, “my priority,” he said, “is the situation of the country.”

What was that situation? For Macron, France had fallen into a political cleavage between the left and right that, he said, was holding the nation back. In an early speech, he laid out an alternative. His vision for France was one based on economic, social and political liberty — a France that took more risks, but also offered more opportunity and social mobility through technological progress, social innovation and a spirit of responsibility. All of it would be paired with a strong belief in the European project, and particularly that France might one day play a larger role within it, as a counter-balance to Germany.

Against Le Pen’s right-wing National Front, LREM offered an existential choice for France. It eventually won out. But after the elections, En Marche! had the task of quickly adjusting to both governance and to its future as a political party.

Tumult amongst LREM’s ranks began in July, when members were asked to adopt statutes that would dictate the structure of the party. In particular, a vocal minority was annoyed by rules outlining the selection of the party’s internal leadership, including the party’s national council and its national executive. Unlike other major French parties, LREM’s statutes proposed that the party’s executive would not be directly chosen by the party’s members, but instead via a combined vote from three groups: a council of politicians, local committee leaders and a minority (25 percent) of members selected by random draw. There are no internal elections.

The idea came from LREM observing elections in other parties, particularly the Socialist party. “They took from the numerous infighting [in] this party the idea that elections have never been a guarantee for internal democracy,” says Bogain, the Northumbria University lecturer.

Critics argued these rules would create a party that was dominated by figures at the top, the elected politicians in particular. A group of about 9,000 members, calling itself the Collectif des Marcheurs en Colère (loosely translated: the Collective of Angry Marchers) decided to fight the proposed rules. Their fear was, by adopting the statutes, internal party democracy would be lost, and that the party’s leadership would be too removed from its base — a grievance that ran parallel to Macron’s more general public presidential aloofness.

“This is a party that clearly announced it would be different, with participative democracy, with ideas borne from the base, and now it’s a pyramid with its base cut off,” Tiphaine Beaulieu, a spokesperson for the Collectif, said in August. “There’s nothing left but a head.”

Some of that anger was left over from the parliamentary elections, says Bogain. At that time, some members were annoyed with the candidate selection process. “They were unhappy with some of the appointments,” she says. “They deemed that the candidates were not reliable, or that they had legal issues in the past, putting them at odds with the promise of ethical renewal, and they were unhappy with the lack of reaction from the leadership.”

En Marche
Emmanuel Macron (C), head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, attends a campaign rally in Albi, France, May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

There is nothing necessarily new about a political movement finding it difficult to transition into a formal party, as idealism becomes more like ideology. In En Marche!’s case, the anger may speak to the kind of movement Macron founded: built not predominantly on a single issue like the environment (Germany’s Green party) or to fight austerity measures (Spain’s Podemos), but on vaguer commitments to institutional and societal reform by a specific politician. Macron’s bipartisan promises of a new form of democracy lent themselves to a wholesale reimagining of governance — a high bar of expectations for both his party and himself. When reality failed to match visionary language, there was unrest within the movement’s ranks.

What sets LREM apart from other movements, however, is that it was immediately catapulted into government, thereby drawing even more focus to its internal issues. “It’s a lot easier to make this transition when you’re in opposition,” says Dominika Kruszewska, a PhD candidate in comparative politics at Harvard University, “because you don’t have to compromise on a number of your positions.”

In that regard, LREM may be an example for other movements. It has not only been successful at winning votes and elections, but did so in a very short time period — in just over a year. What helped make that possible?

It took a unique approach (at least in France) to politics, for one. Unlike other parties, LREM aims for gender parity — 51 percent of its candidates in the legislative elections were women. It also effectively crowd-sourced its candidates, putting out an open call and asking for applications from those who felt qualified. It has (though, as we’ve seen, controversially) allowed space for everyday members on its national council. The government that has formed from the movement has, despite the negative headlines, already introduced legislation in line with Macron’s promise of democratic reform: imposing political term limits; curtailing conflicts of interest and nepotism; and taxing parliamentary allowances. It remains, for all intents and purposes, a different kind of party.

And generally the majority of LREM’s membership is still on board. Whatever betrayal of vision the party’s structure may commit, opposition — while still active — has yet to become a movement-wide revolt. The party moved forward with its statutes, and they were approved by 90 percent of the membership in August. 

Even those internal grumblings may have been positive — a sign, says Bogain, that there remains a vocal group that is willing to reassert the movement’s values. Whether or not the general public noticed cannot be said for certain. However, according to a YouGov/Huffington Post poll taken at the end of August, LREM is seen as one of the most unified major parties in France. Sixty-one percent of those polled said LREM appeared to be a party either united, or united “even if divergences exist on certain questions.” Its only competition in that regard is La France Insoumise, a party of the far-left, a political position to which only 10 percent of respondents said they want their government to adhere.

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How bad are things for Macron? His overall lack of personal popularity cannot be denied. In recent days, he has agreed to speak more with journalists, and news of his adoption of a rescue dog, Nemo, offered a respite from the headlines about his job performance.

Yet, even on the work he has accomplished, the outlook is somewhat positive. Take his most controversial policy, labour reform. Business leaders lauded the unveiling of initial measures in late August, and some unions have staid their anger for the time being, at least. Two unions, CFDT and Force Ouvrière, have said they will not join a protest planned by the more hardline CGT union in mid-September (though the protests will likely still be large). It’s not an outright win, but it’s not a loss, and Macron didn’t concede much ground to get it.

Macron sticks to his guns. That attitude has helped solidify his party, just as it won him grudging plaudits that day in April on the Whirlpool picket line. Factory employee Celia Blagny told Bloomberg then that, though she was not initially happy to see Macron, “he spoke to us. I’m not sure he can truly help us. But he tried.” She was persuaded enough that she said she would encourage her mother to vote for Macron, rather than stay home.

“For half the electorate, the incident showed that Emmanuel Macron had the courage to go and tell workers the truth: that their jobs can’t be saved,” Thomas Geunole, professor of politics at the Science Po Institute, told Bloomberg about the Whirlpool picket line appearance. “For the other half it’s a scandal that he could say such a thing when he’s about to become president. But even to them it showed firmness.”

Forty-one percent of respondents told YouGov this month that “the government has good intentions, even if I am not always in line with its positions.” Maybe, for Macron, that will be enough to accomplish what he has set out to do.