France's Macron tumbles from his self-styled 'Jupiter-like' eminence: Don Murray

For French President Emmanuel Macron, it's not so much substance but questions of personal style that have damaged his popularity. And much of the trouble is of his own making.

Yelling, 'I am the boss!' and spending $40,000 on makeup, president is creating his own troubles

French President Emmanuel Macron and his dog Nemo leave at the Elysée Palace in Paris to greet a guest on Aug. 28. Four months after taking office as the youngest French leader since Napoleon, Macron has seen his popularity melt dramatically. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Well, that didn't take long. 

Four months after taking office at 39 — the youngest French leader since Napoleon — with 66 per cent of the vote, Emmanuel Macron has seen his popularity melt dramatically.

At the end of August, 57 per cent of people polled said they were unsatisfied with his performance. That's approaching Trump territory.

In the spring he was hailed as the European Justin Trudeau, able to surf a frothy wave of popularity to a parliamentary majority. Not any more.

It's not so much substance but questions of personal style that have damaged his popularity. And much of the trouble is of his own making. 

Macron came to office after just two years as a cabinet minister saying he wanted to be a "Jupiter-like" president, directing affairs from on high like the king of the ancient Roman gods, disdaining day-to-day questions and untrustworthy journalists.
The statue 'Jupiter, King of the Roman gods carrying a thunderbolt and accompanied by an eagle' is shown in Le Louvre Lens Museum in Lens, France, in 2012. Macron came to office saying he wanted to be a 'Jupiter-like' president, directing affairs from on high. Here Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima (right) and Ryue Nishizawa stand beside Jupiter. (Reuters)

It was an unsubtle dig at his predecessor and former boss François Hollande, the chatty "normal president" who ended his five-year term reviled and disdained. 

Jupiter quickly became a sarcastic nickname used by politicians, reporters and the public.

But Macron 's view of himself and his place in history didn't change. 

"We have turned the page on three decades of inefficiency. We're now on the path of reconstruction which will lead to reconciliation." That's his verdict on his election as president. 

His ultimate goal is worthy of Charles de Gaulle, the founder and first president of the fifth French republic: "France must again become a great power, full stop."

'I am the boss!'

And woe betide anyone who questions his decisions. Like the head of the French armed forces, Gen. Pierre de Villiers, who complained in salty terms to French MPs about a big and unexpected cut in the military budget in June. 

Macron bawled him out in front of his fellow generals. "I am the boss!" he said.

De Villiers resigned. 

Macron's performance was widely criticized as authoritarian. But, like Trump, the French president doesn't admit error. Two months later, he batted away the criticism. 

"It was a tempest in a teapot," he said, "because people have lost track of what the Fifth Republic is." In other words, in the Fifth Republic the president is untouchable.
Macron kisses his wife Brigitte during a ceremony in Paris on May 14. An online petition shot down the idea of creating a French Office of the First Lady. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Then Jupiter was discovered to have spent almost $40,000 on makeup in his first 100 days in office. His 64-year-old wife Brigitte tried to take the sting out of that, saying, "At breakfast he arrives all fresh, and I'm there with my wrinkles."

It didn't help when his advisers floated the idea of creating an Office of the First Lady. An online petition against that initiative quickly gathered 150,000 signatures. The initiative was shredded.

Jupiter was forced to climb into the arena. He's suddenly giving interviews and off-the-record briefings.

Rewriting thorny legislation

He announced that his first big task would be to rewrite one of the oldest, thorniest pieces of legislation in the country's history — the labour code. 

This, he says, will be the meat of his presidency.

The labour code is a monument, more than 100 years old, more than 3,300 pages long. Of that total, 170 pages alone are devoted to firing employees. It is a legal tangle that has long terrified employers. 

It has also led, many people believe — Macron among them — to endemic high unemployment, hovering around 10 per cent.  Almost 25 per cent of French young people have no jobs. Companies, particularly small ones, are afraid to hire them.
Macron shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 7. In the spring Macron was hailed as the European Trudeau, able to surf a frothy wave of popularity to a parliamentary majority. Not so today. (Reuters)

"Business is picking up," one small entrepreneur told me in August. He has four employees.  But rather than expand, he's thinking of cutting back on new work. 

"If I hired someone else, I would spend €1 on insurance, social security and pension benefits for every euro I paid him. It's not worth it. And I'd never be able to let him go."

Macron was elected on a promise to slim down and modernize the code to make it easier for companies to hire and fire. An obedient majority in the French National Assembly has armed him with the power to do this by decree. The decrees have been drawn up and shown to employers and unions.

Demonstration set for Sept. 12

The battle lines have been drawn.  A first major anti-decree demonstration has been called for Sept. 12. Street power has defeated or hobbled efforts by the two previous French presidents to overhaul the code. 

But this time Macron may succeed. Government talks this summer have succeeded in splitting the unions. Only one major one, out of the four biggest unions, will take part in the demonstration. And, in the wake of their defeat in the presidential and legislative elections, the opposition parties of the left and right are small and shell-shocked.
Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a press conference after a meeting in Berlin on June 29. The French leader wants to remake Europe, reinforcing the eurozone and rebuilding the Franco-German alliance. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

For Macron, the labour code is just the beginning. He has served notice he wants to reduce the size of the French state in the economy. Government spending accounts for 56.5 per cent of gross domestic product, putting France just behind Finland in the OECD spending standings. (Canada  spends  over 51 per cent at all government levels.)

The young president wants to cut taxes, readjust pensions and slash some of the many subsidies the government hands out. His government began in the summer by announcing a $7.50 per month cut of a special housing allowance for the poor and students. A huge outcry led Macron to say he wanted that cut to be matched by a similar cut in rents by apartment owners.

Remaking Europe, too

For good measure the French leader wants to remake Europe, reinforcing the eurozone and rebuilding the Franco-German alliance. 

It's enormously ambitious. But success has always come easily to Macron — at France's best schools, at the Rothschild bank, as a presidential assistant and then as a minister parachuted into his job by his boss. 

Macron is, in his mind, the providential man. But he has only run, and won, once. He has yet to lose a major battle. Inevitably he will. Jupiter, in defeat, is a tableau  his country has yet to see.


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.