Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, in an interview this week aboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, acknowledged that he has “not succeeded in reconciling the French people and their leaders”—in other words, himself. Macron’s approval ratings stand at an all-time low with over seventy percent of French people polled not expressing confidence in his leadership.
Yet great hopes have been pinned on Macron and he has worked hard to fulfill them. On November 11, at the commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice ending the World War I, before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the eternal flame underneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Macron delivered a long speech of tribute to the fallen. In the speech he also forcefully expressed a worldview in defense of the postwar liberal international order and implacably opposed to nationalism, populism, and the tribalism of politics in many countries, not least the United States, whose president, Donald J. Trump, sat stony-faced as his ally and supposed friend attacked directly Trump’s attitude and actions.
This is not the first time that Macron has defiantly pronounced his disagreement with Trump: he did so at the end of his state visit in an address to a joint meeting of the US Congress in Washington. After the Armistice commemoration ceremonies, which brought together heads of state and government from seventy countries, the first edition of the Paris Peace Forum was held, including many of those leaders, though not Trump.
Since the day he was elected, Macron has been intent upon representing the humanist values of the Enlightenment of which he considers Europe, and France, the birthplace, and said so in his victory speech at the Louvre. His arrival to the music of “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven’s composition which has been adopted as the European Union anthem, constituted the first affirmation of support for the European ideal by a French leader since the defeat of the European constitutional referendum in 2005. Indeed, I characterized his election as “the revenge of the Enlightenment.”
Promoting this enlightened worldview has, however, run into three especially intractable obstacles: Macron’s ineffectiveness in foreign policy, the fracturing of Europe, and the lack of progress in France—all leading, in one form or another, to his seriously disappointing poll numbers.
Macron has yet to achieve any major foreign policy breakthroughs and his attempts to persuade Trump to stay in the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal (JPCOA) have borne no fruit. Nor has he been successful in positioning France, for example, vis-à-vis Russia as a key to solving the Syrian crisis or introducing UN peacekeeping troops in Ukraine. He has managed to articulate an enormously thoughtful, cohesive, well-constructed worldview, as expressed, for instance, in his 2018 speech to the UN General Assembly, but the practical impacts have not so far been felt.
From a more philosophical standpoint, the great weakness of his defense of the liberal international order, and his positioning of France as the beacon of the Enlightenment values, is that Macron is proposing very little that is new. It is not enough to assemble nongovernmental organizations and civil society representatives at the Paris Peace Forum: to counter populism, what is required is a new, reformed international order that governments and peoples can adopt and support. Nothing of the kind has been clearly articulated.
Macron had hoped that he would be able simultaneously to revive the European ideal and, as France, to take a leadership role in moving toward a newly invigorated Europe. He articulated this vision in an eloquent speech at the Sorbonne more than a year ago and again at the Acropolis movingly invoking Hegel’s owl of Minerva. But these hopes have been frustrated by events. The weak re-election of Angela Merkel, her frail coalition, and now her gradual departure mean that the Franco-German couple cannot be revived as the motor of European progress. With a split extremist government in Italy, Brexit in the United Kingdom, Sebastian Kurz in Austria, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and euro-skepticism in the Czech Republic and in Poland, the only standard-bearer of Enlightenment values which Macron can inspire in Europe is actually France itself.
But as Macron admitted in his shipboard interview, he has failed to connect with the French people. Great leaders explain. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Macron’s model Charles de Gaulle all succeeded in connecting with their peoples by explaining their policies—whether Roosevelt’s fireside chats, Churchill’s wartime broadcasts or de Gaulle’s magisterial press conferences. But when Macron explains, he explains like a star student in an oral exam, or like a technocrat talking to colleagues. He has a tendency, rife in the French educational system of which he is a product, to castigate. He got into political hot water during his memorial tour of World War I battlefields because he had decided to honor Marshal Philippe Pétain, a hero of the Great War but the arch-collaborator of Adolf Hitler at the helm of the Vichy régime in Pétain’s dotage. If Macron had considered how ordinary French people, many of whose grandparents or other ancestors suffered or died during the German occupation, would feel about commemorating Pétain, the response would have been obvious; but Macron seems to have made a dry, logical executive decision based on his own (or a similarly-minded adviser’s) objective appraisal.
It was not difficult, even six months ago when Macron’s popularity was much higher, to discern the sources of his disconnection with the French people, which I explicated at the beginning of May in the New Atlanticist. I had thought that Macron was imbued with a particularly strong “sense of reality” as described by Sir Isaiah Berlin in his essay “Political Judgement.” What now seems to be the case is that while Macron has a well-developed sense of reality in identifying problems—fortunately a far cry from some of his predecessors and other leaders who preferred to see what they wanted to see, rather than the reality that was before them—notwithstanding that, Macron does not appear to have been able to translate his sense of reality into a bond with the French people. While Macron was defending the liberal international order, promoting Enlightenment values and trolling Trump, French people were demonstrating against rising gasoline prices and worried about rising social contributions and capping of benefits for old-age pensioners, even though Macron’s government, under his prime minister, Édouard Philippe, has been successful in pushing through education, labor, and other reforms as described in a review by the Institut Montaigne. These differences of emphasis show how wide the gap between him and the French people really is.
Macron still has three-and-a-half years left in office. His goal from the beginning has clearly been to make France great again. He can still do this. Even if he has recently attempted to change his tone, the problem is not a communications problem, it a problem of political positioning. As I wrote six months ago, fixing this entails “a shift in political emphasis from himself as the protagonist to the French people not as the objects but as the subjects of policy.” This means attacking France’s structural ills: unemployment, vocational training, the university system, productivity, work ethic, economic growth, competitiveness. The cool entrepreneurial scene in Paris, making France a “start-up nation,” won’t compensate for not addressing the problems of real people in stagnant jobs who have trouble making ends meet.
Instead of relying so heavily on his own remarkable work ethic, energy, vision, and judgment, Macron needs now to design a strategy of influence that will allow him to successfully woo the French people—making them understand that he cares about them, not that they should care about him. Like any strategy, this involves an unbiased realistic assessment, followed by determination of a set of objectives, the design of a plan, then its implementation and, continuously thereafter, measurement of its impacts and consequent course adjustments. But time is less abundant than it seems, for a thrashing of the European centrist and progressive parties at the European Parliament elections in May 2019 could set the course for a bloody battle in the French municipal elections of 2020 and regional elections in 2021 before the next presidential elections in 2022.
Only if Macron succeeds in a strategy of influence with the French people, a strategy based on addressing their problems as they see them, a strategy rooted in a ruthless sense of reality, will he have the full credibility required to make France genuinely great again in the wider world, and to do so in a second full term as France’s president.
Nicholas Dungan is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, associate research fellow of the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations, and an adjunct faculty member of Sciences Po Paris. Follow him on Twitter @Nicholas_Dungan.