France’s Macron hits the headwinds of nationalism

Published : 2 Sept 2017, 12:55 PM
Updated : 2 Sept 2017, 12:55 PM

Emmanuel Macron, president of France with all the glory that commands, has had a wretchedly brief honeymoon. Elected in May with some 67 percent of the vote, he promised to respect and address the "anger, the anxiety and the doubts" which many had expressed, and pledged to "recreate the links between Europe and its peoples."

Since that heady night, he has been plunged from the heights of hope into the apparently eternal hard facts of French political life. His stellar approval ratings descended rapidly from 64 percent in June to an anemic 37 percent earlier this week. Polls are volatile things: but it's likely this reflects tougher verities than seasonal fluctuation on the part of the French electorate.

Macron's capture of two thirds of the electorate was made when the voters were forced to choose, in the second round of voting, between Macron, a centrist offering something to left and right, and a hard rightist, Marine Le Pen of the National Front. Her performance in a decisive TV debate with him was described as "better suited to an after-dinner boozy get-together" than the pose of a future president.

His majority was not all for him, but – apart from Le Pen's own supporters, a substantial 34 percent of voters – mostly against her. In the first debate, the majority of the 10 candidates present called for some form of protection from globalization, and expressed a degree of aversion to the European Union. Their attitudes to Macron's frank embrace of the EU, globalization and a revived Franco-German leadership of a more integrated EU varied from skepticism to disgust. He can convince the milder skeptics – but only by producing results. These will take pain to achieve, and he is the man who must inflict it.

France's military has already felt this pain. Macron, underlining that he was now "the boss," announced an 850m euro ($980m) cut in the armed forces' budget, prompting the immediate resignation last month of General Pierre de Villiers, the military's head – who told Macron there was "no fat left. You are cutting into muscle." De Villiers said he resigned because he "was no longer able to guarantee the robust defense force" he believed was necessary to protect France.

The general has gone and the defense cuts stay – for now at least. Other cuts didn't. A reduction of five euros a month to a housing benefit announced in July was quickly scrapped; the cut would have had the biggest effect on the poorest in society. Promised tax cuts have also been postponed – a move justified by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who had described France as sitting on "a debt volcano."

Macron's new party, "En Marche!," dominates the parliament but has few experienced politicians. The leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, a powerful orator, has had the best of parliamentary debates – though his party, France Insoumise (France Unbowed), has a mere 17 seats in the National Assembly. During the debate on the housing cut, he displayed a bag of discount groceries costing five euros – white bread, pasta, canned vegetables – a dramatic show of what poverty means in the world's foodiest country.

France, which saw inequalities in income and wealth grow relatively rapidly in the past few years, is still a country where equality is regarded as an important social good, even if more honored in the breach than the observance. Macron has cut hard against this culture; when the political season begins again in the next few weeks, his plans to liberalize the labor market will meet the force of the unions. The most powerful, the Confédération Générale du Travail, has already declared war. The others are more cautious but, backed by Melenchon and the rest of the left and capitalizing on the fall in presidential popularity, they may pull off a September of protests that would see leftists, far rightists and unions all – separately or together – testing the president's reforms on the streets.

Macron, and the world which welcomed him, now grasp the enormity of the task he has set himself – and the national interests he must serve even as he proclaims the need for a more integrated Europe. At the center of the European Union debate remains a stubborn contradiction. The push to integrate in order to better control the euro currency and align national economic policies will meet the desire of most citizens to hold to account their own politicians, those they have elected and understand. It is that power of national accountability that Europeans – along with millions of Americans – increasingly want to keep.

Nationalism is much more than the ideology of the far right. As the scholar Andrew Michta writes, it is a set of ideological assumptions, an "idea of sovereignty that grows from the sense of belonging to a nation." As such, it is much more than the defeat of far right-parties. It is the still potent force with which the EU must wrestle, and which presently has the better of its ideal of "ever closer union."

The larger question, which Donald Trump's victory and presidency puts on the global agenda, is whether or not the swing away from global ideals and practices to a defensive nationalism can remain broadly liberal and civic. Or does it contain a powerful charge of resentment and anger, directed largely at elites, judged to have betrayed their first duty – that of looking after their own people first?

Italy is Europe's present weather vane. A London Times reporter wrote this week that violence and hostility to migrants has grown "as Italians adjust to the likelihood that many tens of thousands of the newcomers will be staying permanently. The country's tolerance is waning, its politics being reshaped." Its neighbors, including France and Austria, have closed their borders; Italy has become a pressure cooker, with liberals and leftists defensive, the far right and populists on the electoral rampage.

Trump seems unlikely to lead the revolution he promised. Columnist Ezra Klein wrote this week that the president has been surrounded by generals who neutralize his tweets, take care of the details he doesn't care to know and leave him to posture, "happy — even eager — to be both operationally and ideologically marginalized." But his presidency has shown that there's a vast, politically active constituency of the disaffected and marginalized. Macron, the liberal centrist, must contend with similar forces. The survival of liberal internationalism, in the U.S. and Europe, will define politics in the coming years.