‘No happy new year for French president chasing a place in history’

President Macron’s problems are stacking up at home and abroad, says columnist Simon Heffer

‘Apart from the economy, community relations remain Mr Macron’s greatest headache’

What chance of it being une bonne année for President Macron? Frankly, it does not look good.

His polling rating is irrelevant, as he cannot stand for office again. But he remains the leader of one of the world’s foremost countries, in one of the world’s most important trading blocs. What happens to him, his reputation and tangentially to his country has ramifications beyond France.

However, the President is plainly a vain man with a keen sense of his own self-importance, and has always appeared deeply conscious of his place in history.

He looks horribly like a lame duck

He won in 2017 because he seemed to offer something new, consensual, divorced from conventional party politics and very much for the good of France.

France, however, proved reluctant to change some of its ways and assumptions about what the state should or should not do for it, and Mr Macron sailed permanently through choppy waters.

He won in 2022 solely because the alternative was Marine Le Pen: an alternative that may well prevail in the election he cannot fight in 2027.

He has urged Europe to cohere to meet economic challenges, and it has not. He has sought to bring his influence to bear to end the Ukraine war, and he has failed.

With over three years left in office, he looks horribly like a lame duck. He must wish the rest of the world took him more seriously: but it seems reluctant to do so.

Read more: Key quotes from President Macron's TV speech to France about Hamas

June’s European Parliament elections will be a clear test

Among his other hopes for 2024 must be that the ascent of the Rassemblement National (RN) should end: but it is hard to see how.

Instead of one well-known leader in Marine Le Pen it has two, with Jordan Bardella, its 28-year old president, not only as well-known as she is but ahead of her in public popularity.

Mr Macron’s own party, rebranded as Renaissance, has a tenuous existence.

In June’s European Parliament elections there will be a clear test of its viability, and whether the old parties of the mainstream left and right can recover any of their former vigour and tempt people away from the RN.

Ambition to follow Merkel as ‘leader’ of the EU has gone

It does not look promising. If the European elections are a debacle for the President, amplifying and confirming the RN’s momentum, a wave of instability could hit France broadside.

A European Parliament with a sizeable RN contingent would have profound effects in Brussels and on the populist parties around the European Union.

If Geert Wilders’ comrades in the Netherlands advance, and the AfD in Germany wins more seats, the whole bloc will have to be reoriented, and sentiment among many voters in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Sweden and Austria about the direction of the EU will not help.

For Euro-idealists such as Mr Macron, that would become a nightmare: his earlier ambition to follow Angela Merkel as the de facto leader of the EU has long since evaporated, and if he entertains any hopes of resurrecting it in 2024 he is deluded.

Paris Olympics tainted by security measures

Less than two months after those elections comes the event on which France is pinning its hopes on burnishing its international reputation: the Paris Olympics.

However, for reasons related to one of the main difficulties of the year ahead, the Games are already causing concern.

Laurent Nuñez, Paris’s chief of police, has outlined strict security measures over fears of possible terrorist attacks.

People living near the venues have been told they will need a QR code to enter their properties: residents may also be forced to register any visitors to their homes.

Large security perimeters will be set up, all Metro stations within them closed, and a massive surveillance operation will begin.

Mr Macron has no choice but to endorse these measures, denounced as an attack on individual freedom.

As Head of State and apprised of the latest intelligence, he knows there are people who, while the rest of the world’s eyes are on Paris, would want to seize the chance to make an international spectacle of the wrong sort.

Read more: New Olympic Intelligence Centre will coordinate security at Paris 2024

Radicalism is President’s gravest challenge

Apart from the economy, community relations, and particularly those with France’s growing Muslim minority, remain Mr Macron’s greatest headache.

Recently he has felt the effects of the radicalisation of a small minority of French Muslims – the recent murder of a teacher in Arras, the conviction of six youths who enabled the murder of another teacher, Samuel Paty, in 2020, and protests at the decision of a teacher in the Parisian banlieue to show her art class a copy of the 17th century masterpiece ‘Diana and Actaeon’ by Giuseppe Cesari, depicting a man encountering several naked women.

Gabriel Attal, the education minister, expressed outrage that the teacher was attacked for alleged racism, and that her security was endangered by her name and the false allegations going around social media.

Mr Macron must wish such divisions would end, but it is only getting worse.

Attempts to defend the status quo – that France has a right to project a typically French culture rooted in western civilisation, and should not censor this simply to placate a minority who choose to reject it – may be justified, but serve only to stoke up yet more radicalism.

It remains the President’s, and his country’s, gravest challenge.

Read more: Teacher killed, two injured in terrorist knife attack at French school

France’s over-regulation undermines the economy

He must wish, too, that the euro could be devalued, to make French exports outside the EU cheaper, creating more demand and more jobs.

That is highly unlikely, unless the June elections are an earthquake.

France remains over-regulated, its public sector over-large, its welfare system over-generous – and all this undermines its economic health.

Mr Macron knows this and has tried, with limited success, to introduce policies for change. He has new legislation to limit immigration, and plans further economic reforms.

But with the Assemblée nationale nearly impossible to manage, the new year is likely to disappoint the President in these hopes, as in so many others.

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