For almost 15 months since Emmanuel Macron managed to win the presidential election without even a proper party behind him, the failure of his main opponents to score more than the occasional point has been remarkable.
France considered him to have an unassailable mandate; other European opinion-formers instinctively admired him because of his fresh-faced moderation, and the fact that he seemed to radiate an image of a very different sort of France altogether from the corrupt, cronyist, arrogant and incompetent politics that characterized aspects of the presidencies of Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. How wrong, it seems, everyone was.
President Macron turns out to be remarkably like everyone else who has held his job recently; and this, at last, has given his opponents the chance they have been waiting for.
The disclosure that one of his closest security guards, Alexandre Benalla, impersonated a police officer at a May Day protest earlier this year and attacked a man and a woman – they, at time of writing, are the only two of whom there is video evidence – has badly tainted M Macron’s image. He, his prime minister and his interior minister have all denounced Benalla’s behaviour; the thuggish security guard has been arrested, as has one of his colleagues; and Benalla has been sacked.
However, when one picks up the stone the story is far worse. The fact that it came to the surface in late July when the media are searching for stories, because most of those who make the news are on holiday, has transformed what might otherwise have been the proverbial storm in a teacup into a national political scandal.
Benalla has an unfortunate past. Arnaud Montebourg, a colleague of M Macron before the present president ratted on the Parti Socialiste, employed the 26-year-old as a driver; but claims he sacked him when he caused an accident and wanted to flee the scene.
Benalla then turned up on Macron’s payroll during his election campaign, and evidence has emerged of him acting thuggishly then too. His record was enough for Le Figaro to write a leading article about the case – with a nod to genuine policemen who were filmed standing by and not lifting a finger while Benalla carried out his assaults – entitled Flics ou voyous? (cops or yobboes?).
On top the incidents only became public because Le Monde exposed them. It is hardly surprising that the Elysée wanted to keep the matter private, and ministers, after their initial statements, went into hiding on the question.
It is hard to decide what is worse – M Macron’s judgment in hiring this man for such sensitive and important work, or the fact he kept him employed after learning of the attacks, only dismissing him when these were exposed in the press.
The president’s approval rating has slumped to 39 per cent, and those who flocked to his standard last year, seduced by promises of transparency and honesty, realize the force of the old adage that if something seems too good to true, it probably is.
Like all politicians who fight their way to the top, M Macron is – has to be – capable of deceit, cronyism and economy with the truth. The slump in his ratings shows the French electorate grasps that.
As this column has already noted, his personal style and attitude are redolent of the ancien regime, as, we now know, are his methods.
In the days after France won the World Cup on 15 July his proprietorship of the victory would have compelled a visitor from Mars to assume that he, and not a team of 11 fine sportsmen, had been on the field. So blatant was his opportunism that he has defied gravity, and shown that a World Cup victory need not mean a political boost for the head of government of the country concerned; it was only after his antics that his popularity fell below 40 per cent.
His two main rivals leapt at the opening his succession of disasters presented to them. Marine Le Pen, conscious of the poor campaign she fought when he defeated her in 2017, has had a quiet time since then, completing the rebranding of her Front National party as the Rassemblement National. She came out fighting, saying that the Benalla scandal was in fact the Macron scandal, and showed how he and his close associates at the heart of government were fundamentally dishonest and opposed to the public interests.
Laurent Wauquiez, who like Mme Le Pen has largely bided his time since assuming the leadership of Les Republicains last December, gave an interview to Le Figaro in which he labelled the Macron regime a “government of henchmen” and said the very principles of the republic were at stake while its leadership was in the hands of Macron.
What helps both Mme Le Pen and M Wauquiez is that, objectively, their criticisms are well-founded.
It seems M Macron brushed aside the gravity of Benalla’s conduct, and went to lengths to shield him – and to protect the office of president – that cross a line into the immoral and the improper. As M Wauquiez said in his interview, they undermine authority and the rule of law in France.
The challenge for both politicians, however, if they wish to hobble M Macron and ensure he becomes France’s third one-term president in a row, is to move on to a devastating critique of his policies as well as of his personality. For that, France and the world still wait expectantly, but not, I suspect, for long.