Macron’s men begin to see time running out
Even before the really bad things started happening, Le Figaro termed the resumption of President Macron’s political activity after the summer holidays “ une rentrée calamiteuse”. One now seeks more desperate adjectives.
The president has lost two senior colleagues. Nicolas Hulot, his environment minister, chose on August 28 to present his resignation not in the traditional form of a letter following a private conversation, but on live radio, saying he had endured a series of “disappointments” in trying to secure policies to respond to climate change; claiming he felt isolated.
The last straw appears to have been an announcement that the government was easing restrictions on hunting, which suggests muddled thinking by M Hulot. Countries that allow hunting and shooting paradoxically encourage the spread of wildlife, because hunters need to conserve things to hunt.
However, M Hulot said the change has made him grasp the power of lobbyists. Since he used, as a green activist, to be one himself, he should have worked that out before.
However petulant, self-righteous and ill-mannered his means of leaving the government might seem, it appears to have convinced environmentalists in France and around Europe that the Macron régime does not really believe in green policies.
Then Gérard Collomb, who as minister of the interior might have been thought to hold one of the best jobs in French politics, announced he would be quitting the government next year to concentrate on regaining his old job as mayor of Lyon.
This prompted not merely accusations that he was now a lame duck minister, but of his putting his political career before the security of the French people: M Collomb superintends the fight against terrorism, which few French in any case thought was being prosecuted with the intensity it merits.
He announced his intentions the day after an LREM député (MP), Frédérique Dumas, said she was leaving the Macronist party because she felt as though she were on the Titanic.
M Collomb at least tried to put a positive gloss on what the government was seeking to do, comparing the programme of reforms it has announced to ketchup stuck in the neck of a bottle: a few more thumps on the base and the sauce will suddenly come out.
It is an interesting analogy, but one that has some justification. Having been in power for the best part of 18 months, M Macron has instituted tax and welfare reforms that have yet to work through the economy and stimulate growth in the way he hopes.
Yet economic history suggests he is on the right lines: Margaret Thatcher, taking over a similarly sclerotic socialist state in Britain in 1979, had to wait six or seven years before her reforms visibly created wealth and started to reduce unemployment.
Restructurings are painful and their effects do not become visible overnight; and M Macron has difficulties because while he has had to rein in France’s generous welfare benefits, and put up taxes on pensions (though that policy has, after massive complaints, been diluted), he has removed a wealth tax and cut corporation tax.
The French will find, if they are patient, that reducing debt will reap long-term benefits, and the tax cuts will attract the creators of wealth and, therefore, the creation of jobs that will bring down France’s unacceptably high levels of unemployment.
To try and placate his critics, M Macron has also announced health reforms that ought to provide a better service to those who need it most: the departing M Collomb admitted, to M Macron’s fury, that the administration often showed a lack of humanity.
This brings us to the main reason why not just the rentrée, but the whole administration, seems calamiteuse, and that is M Macron’s insufferable grandeur and arrogance, which have aggrieved so many of his fellow French. It was bad enough when he foolishly engaged with a lout who, he thought, had been cheeky to him. But then he rounded on an unemployed gardener and told him he would get a job if he tried harder, which sent his opinion poll ratings plunging to 19%, the lowest ever recorded for a president at his stage in an administration.
With the European elections less than eight months away, he is behind Marine Le Pen, and if he is not careful will suffer a painful humiliation. Hence the Titanic simile, which is also being used by some of his opponents.
Accusations that he is cut off from the French public are no doubt true – very few of them supported him in the first round of the 2017 election, which he eventually won because of the electorate’s determination not to support Mme Le Pen, not because he had an electrifying programme.
But to be fair to him, the benefits of change do take time to become apparent; and successive presidents – even ones who boasted they would embrace reform, such as Nicolas Sarkozy – have run away from making those changes ever since the foundation of the Fourth Republic after the Second World War.
They feared provoking a France that is deeply syndicaliste and has come to depend on the generosity of a state ruthlessly redistributing wealth from the few to the many.
Marianne has splashed on its front cover Panique à L’Elysée to sum up the mood around the president as his problems multiply. Panic is not, however, the answer. M Macron needs to explain himself and to persuade. He may not have the six or seven years it took Mrs Thatcher to change the consensus in Britain: he may have just three and a half more.
He has further damage to limit in the saga of his former henchman Alexandre Benalla, being tried for impersonating a police officer. He needs to sort out his public relations rapidly: and, perhaps most of all, to stop being so impossibly grand.;
Column by political commentator and historian Simon Heffer, who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs