The talking cure: How France's Macron reversed his sinking popularity

After his approval rating cratered in early 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron embarked on a talking tour with French citizens, including 16 televised conversations. It appears to have changed his fortunes, writes Don Murray.

French president's approval rating hit a low of 21% in early 2019

French President Emmanuel Macron's approval rating hit its lowest point in the wake of the Yellow Vest protests. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

He's back from the political dead.

French President Emmanuel Macron has escaped from the grave of public opinion that buried his two predecessors. And, having shaken the dirt from premature burial from his clothes, he's back to doing what he enjoys — breaking political taboos. 

But first, his resurrection.

It was just 10 months ago, in November 2018, that Macron was ambushed by "les gilets jaunes" (yellow vests) worn by angry French citizens as they blocked roundabouts in and near cities and towns in provincial France. They were furious at another new tax, this time on diesel fuel.

The demonstrations around the country grew into the tens of thousands, and became violent. Les Champs Élysées in Paris burned on Saturday afternoons. As the crowds grew, so did the list of grievances. People were protesting that they had been forgotten, and scorned, by the political elite of Paris, led by Macron.

Their anger was personal. "I've developed a hatred for him, and I voted for him!" said one 65-year old pensioner named Josette in December 2018. 

"What I can't stand is his permanent smile. It's as if he doesn't give a damn about us."  These were the words of Antony, a 24-year-old supermarket worker.

Macron's popularity shrank. By the beginning of 2019, his favourability rating was a miserable 21 per cent.

His predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, saw their popularity sink to similar lows in their first months in office. And they never fully recovered. Both left office after just one term.

Macron had to react. The man who had come to office preaching the way of managerial politics – his aides talked, using English terms such as "brainstorming" and "task forces" – came up with a different approach. He would try grassroots democracy.

Answering the Yellow Vests

First, Macron froze the diesel tax increase, and then announced a Great National Debate.

The Yellow Vest protests against the carbon tax embodied other grievances with Macron and his government, including a feeling that the country was run by elites. (Ian Langsdon/EPA-EFE)

The leaders of the Yellow Vests were scornful. Many others were not. From January to April, more than 10,000 meetings were organized, most by local mayors. According to government statistics, almost 500,000 people participated, in person or online.

The key participant was Macron himself. He attended no fewer than 16 meetings, all televised. Several of these were marathons lasting six or seven hours. Macron sat there, listening, discussing, outlining his position. Some commentators derisively dismissed it as the Macron Show, others dubbed it an orgy of political psychotherapy.

Whatever it was, it gave Macron a big boost in the polls.

In April, he announced the debate closed, and delivered his conclusions. The man accused of being afraid to leave the presidential palace during Yellow Vest demonstrations was no longer fearful. He had learned valuable lessons in the "debates" — mainly that he had been right, after all.

"I asked myself: 'Should we stop everything that was done over the past two years? Did we take a wrong turn?' I believe quite the opposite."

He said he wanted to re-instill pride in "the art of being French." This would involve a campaign to re-install French as a "world language" in Europe and around the world. At home, it would be easier to organize citizens' referendums. The loathed symbol of the elite French meritocracy, the École Nationale d'Administration, of which he was a graduate, would be abolished.

The populists had won, and they were rewarded. Macron announced $7.5 billion in tax cuts to low- and middle-income earners.

By the end of the summer, the number of voters saying they viewed him favourably had risen to over 40 per cent.

A new phase 

And so, time to crack some taboos. Macron initiated talks with Iranian leaders, risking the wrath of Donald Trump.

He invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to his summer residence, and then sent his ministers of foreign affairs and defence to Moscow. There, they discussed arms control, but also Crimea and the Moscow-backed low-grade war in eastern Ukraine. That risked annoying European partners.

Macron has made it clear that he will not be adopting the generous immigration policy that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, did in 2015. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Then, on Sept. 16, he opened a real Pandora's box. It was time, he said, to get tough — even brutal — on immigration.

"We must prepare our country," he said, "for the modern challenges that cause fear.   For decades, the left didn't even want to look at this problem. And so the working class migrated to the extreme right. We're like the three monkeys. We don't want to look.

"The bourgeois don't have a problem. They never come across it [the influx of immigrants]. The working class has to live with it."

This was incendiary rhetoric, and deliberate. And there was more from Macron's spokesperson, Sibeth Ndiaye. Speaking of coming waves of immigration from Africa, she said, "We must arm our country." 

This, apparently, was one of the key lessons Macron took away from his many "debates." Gone is the man who applauded Angela Merkel when she let in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to Germany in 2015. Nothing remotely like it will happen in France under Macron.

The French president sees insecurity and immigration as the main battlegrounds against the far-right National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, in the presidential election of 2022. No other party will be in the running.

In the European Parliament elections in May, the National Rally finished first, with 24 per cent, one per cent more than Macron's party. And his analysis is that to beat Le Pen in the presidental election, he will have to be tougher than her.

His words worry many in his party, including his own prime minister, Edouard Philippe. "This is an area where Edouard believes in soft words and strong actions," one of his aides told the newspaper Le Monde.

With Macron, however, the rhetoric and the measures will be rough. Illegal immigrants will be deported from France, and their removal will, in some cases, be done very publicly.

Macron is a leader who luxuriates in power. Ten months ago, he saw it slipping away. He will do whatever it takes to keep it.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.