Is Emmanuel Macron a Dark Horse Conservative?
The last time a French president lost popularity so quickly in the summer following his election was when Jacques Chirac plunged fifteen percentage points in July 1995 according to French pollster Ifop. France’s recently elected President Emmanuel Macron is not far behind with a ten point drop this past July.
Macron, who was heralded as a return to pro-European Union, centrist normalcy has seen his approval ratings take a nosedive, with YouGov seeing a 30 percent drop since the election, from a 66 percent approval rating in May to a 36 percent approval rating in late August.
There are many reasons for this drop, including personal style and his political opponents successfully portraying him as authoritarian and aloof. But, much of it has to do with the conditions in which Macron was elected in the first place.
Two important factors helping Macron were the implosion of the conservative candidate, Francois Fillon, who was expected to win, and far-right, nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen’s second place finish. Many feared a Le Pen victory would set Europe on the path to pre-World War II nationalism.
European stocks dropped and the Euro weakened out of fears that polls showing a Le Pen loss could be off just as they were with the Brexit vote and the American presidential election. These fears stoked a coalescing of leftists, centrists, and many moderate conservatives around Macron, allowing him to absolutely drub Le Pen 66 percent to 34 percent in general election.
While Le Pen’s nationalism, security policies, and anti-immigrant rhetoric resonated with many American conservatives, her fiscal policies fell more in line with the American Democratic Party. In fact, Fillon endorsed Macron, not to virtue signal to the mainstream media by denouncing nationalism, but rather over Le Pen’s liberal fiscal policy, claiming she would “bankrupt France.”
Macron, who is a former Socialist Party member, quickly showed fiscal conservatism by appointing Édouard Philippe of the conservative Republican Party as his prime minister and fiscal conservatives, Bruno Le Maire and Gérald Darmanin, to lead the Economy and Budget ministries.
The main issue of contention against Macron is labor reform. In addition to France’s generous 35-hour work week, the country has many onerous labor limitations on employers which include systemic barriers to hiring and firing. Also, unlike in more competitive nations like Germany and Sweden, France’s pro-union laws force many to negotiate contracts with industry-wide unions, rather than locals. Every administration that has ever tried to take on organized labor in France has failed.
Prime Minister Philippe argues that with the changes, French companies with fewer than 50 employees will be able to negotiate work rules directly with an elected colleague and companies with fewer than 20 employees will be able to negotiate directly with their employees.
These reforms prompted failed presidential candidate on the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon – who has also organized massive street protests against Macron on September 23 – to accuse the president of declaring “a war against the French social system.”
Being a former investment banker, Macron also understands the need to cut taxes and spending in order to make the French economy more competitive in terms of international trade and investments. But, unlike past French presidents who promised cuts to the country’s viciously, progressive tax system but did not pass the necessary spending cuts to sustain them, Macron has shown a willingness to go after all of France’s sacred cows.
This included standing down General Pierre de Villiers, the popular head of the French armed forces. Macron has promised to boost defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2025 as part of France's commitments to NATO, but the €850 cuts in military spending for this year were too much for the general who resigned. Despite popular outrage, Macron promptly replaced the military leader and moved on with his agenda.
Macron’s growing unpopularity does not seem to be phasing him or his administration which shrugs it off as necessary for change. Government spokesman, Christopher Castaner said recently when asked about the opposition that Macron faces, that Macron told him after the election: “We have won the right to take risks.” Castaner added, “Do you think he is the type of person to change his approach based on polling? I don’t think so.”
Even the far-right National Front which garnered sympathy among many Trump supporters in the U.S. has denounced Macron’s pro-free market measures as "ultra-liberal" and pro-European Union.
But, as Castaner said on August 27, “Transforming France means taking on a degree of unpopularity.”
On foreign policy, Macron has also shown strong conservative tendencies. He has not been shy about criticizing Venezuela, calling it “a dictatorship trying to survive at the cost of unprecedented humanitarian distress.”
On security and the world’s stage, Macron has shown impressive leadership. He recently pledged to make combatting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria his top foreign policy priority. In his first three months in office, he has initiated a summit in Paris with European Union and African leaders to discuss illegal immigration, in New York to discuss a peaceful solution to the Syrian civil war with key United Nations members, and another one in Paris for the beginning of 2018 to coordinate against the international financing of terrorism.
He has also maintained cordial relations with President Donald Trump despite their disagreement over the Paris Climate Accord, which no doubt is partially responsible for Macron’s falling poll numbers among his anti-Trump constituency.
On immigration, Macron has shown a willingness to address many of the concerns that fueled support for Le Pen. He is currently attempting to foster a “European reconstruction” by limiting the ability of French companies to outsource labor to lower-wage Eastern European workers. On July 11, France rolled out a plan to “systematically” deport many illegal migrants and cut the processing time for migrants in half.
Furthermore, at the Paris summit on August 28, Macron convinced leading EU leaders to establish migrant processing centers in African nations that would allow them to vet people before they attempt to leave for Europe. The Europeans also agreed to provide increased financial support to African nations to keep their own citizens from leaving illegally - a method that has proven successful. Recently, Italy saw a 70% drop in illegal immigration through its own collaboration with political leaders in Libya. This allowed the Libyan coast guard to turn back human smugglers and limit non-governmental organizations’ involvement in the process.
Macron, despite being staunchly pro-EU has no doubt disappointed many on the left and in the center who wanted someone who would maintain the status quo. He has shown the willingness to tackle international terrorism, lower taxes and spending, and drive ahead with labor reform despite staunch opposition.
While the nationalist far right has criticized many of his market reforms, he has neutralized a good deal of its populist strength by taking steps to secure the country’s borders and protect French citizens from potentially, dangerous illegal immigrants.
He has five years to implement them and show the country that market reforms and slow, controlled immigration can improve a nation on the whole.