France's Macron fights his Trump-like approval rating by joining the fray: Don Murray

President Emmanuel Macron's ambitious goals for reforming France and the European Union haven't changed, but after seeing his approval rating plummet to Donald Trump-like levels, his approach certainly has.

French president wants to reform his country, but first he needs to earn the people's trust

French President Emmanuel Macron talks with people who oppose his reforms in Saint-Die-des-Vosges, France, on Wednesday. The ambitious leader seems to have also reformed his style of governance recently. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

How to describe him? 

When he became president of France in May 2017, some started calling him the European Trudeau.

But Emmanuel Macron, while young and charismatic at 40, has more power, more ambition and probably more ego than the Canadian prime minister. Just consider the adjective he chose to describe his presidential style — Jupiterian, a reference to the Roman king of the gods. This, he said, meant he would stand above the political fray, giving few interviews, talking not to journalists but directly to the voters.

But Jupiter, almost 12 months after his election, has major troubles, most triggered by his style and his determination to change his country.

France has rolling national railway strikes that are creating chaos for millions of travellers, plus student strikes, strikes by government workers, and loud, widespread grumbling about many of Macron's reforms.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, is greeted by Macron upon his arrival at the Elysée Palace in Paris on Monday. The two leaders are frequently compared, but Macron appears to be the more ambitious of the two. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

These include a loosening of the worker-friendly labour code, rammed through by decree, and a gutting of the French wealth tax, which, almost uniquely in the Western world, taxed not income but the capital people have, such as investments and houses. Very quickly he became known as "le président des riches." And very quickly the polls showed his job approval rating descending to Donald Trump-like levels. After 100 days in office, only 36 per cent of the French liked the way he was doing his job.

Macron regarded that as a challenge. "If I don't totally transform France," he told French writer Emmanuel Carrère last October, "it'll be worse than if I did nothing at all." His goal, he said, was to get France working and investing again.

Charm and mistrust

His problem was that he had charmed a country but its people didn't yet trust him.

The charm, or some of it, flowed from his personal story, and particularly the courting of his wife. The distrust has roots in his route to power.

His wife is Brigitte. She was once his high school drama teacher in the provincial city of Amiens. At the age of 17, he told her he loved her and would one day marry her. Twelve years later, after she divorced her first husband, Macron did marry her. Brigitte is 24 years older than the French president.

He says his wife is his best friend. They discuss everything. She worked as an unpaid adviser when he was a government minister. One of his first initiatives after becoming president was to try to create an office of "première dame," or first lady, complete with a budget and advisers. When more than 300,000 people quickly signed a petition rejecting that idea, it was quietly dropped.

Macron relies on his wife, Brigitte, for advice on everything, including matters of state, and even floated the idea of creating an official role for her. (Christophe Petit Tesson/Reuters)

His job as a government minister brings us to his former boss, François Hollande, the last French president. It was Hollande who named Macron minister of the economy in 2014 (he had been a presidential adviser) and who saw him almost as a son. Hollande was stunned when Macron quit and said he was running for president, effectively blocking Hollande's own path to re-election.

Hollande waited a year and then released his memoirs to coincide with the anniversary of Macron's election. His criticism of his successor was savage. He, Hollande, as a socialist, had reduced inequalities in France; Macron was increasing them.

"There are people who believe there is only one star in the sky, their own," Hollande wrote, and everyone understood who he meant, "and that they owe nothing to anyone."

Macron is equally dismissive of his mentor. "I'm not made to lead in calm weather. My predecessor was. I'm made for storms."

Reform Europe

And storms he has. In the midst of these he invited Justin Trudeau to Paris and organized a singular honour for him. On Monday, Trudeau became the first Canadian prime minister to address the French National Assembly.

But Macron then chose the same day to brutally upstage his guest. He went to the northeastern city of Strasbourg to give a fighting speech to the European Parliament. His theme was the dangers facing Europe.

He warned against "illiberalism" and the "authoritarian temptation." These were scarcely veiled warnings to the illiberal governments of Poland and Hungary, both members of the European Union. Divisions over values, he said, were akin to "a European civil war." In Europe, this speech garnered all the headlines.

For Macron sees his destiny as not only reforming France but all of Europe. He preaches a tighter, more federal EU with a unified defence policy and budget. He wants to squeeze Poland and Hungary to the sidelines.

On Thursday, he travelled to Berlin to push, once again, his reform ideas in talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

French state-owned railway company SNCF workers attend a demonstration against the French government's reform plans in Paris on Thursday. The strike is one of several major problems for Macron as he tries to implement his reform agenda. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

It was part of a week-long political and media offensive that saw him do two long and tough TV interviews, one lasting almost three hours in prime time. He also met with 350 voters one evening in the first of what he called "citizen consultations." He said he would not be deflected from his goal of modernizing and slimming the French railways and civil service, and transforming the country's complex and underfunded university system.

It seems to be working. His poll ratings have climbed from the Trump trough. Now 45 per cent of French voters approve of his presidency. And the railway unions are weakening as the public voices its dissatisfaction.

Jupiter has descended to join the fray, still convinced his reforms are essential, and clearly enjoying the clash of battle.


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.