x

Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Emmanuel Macron's foreign limelight is an escape from darkness at home

UN General Assembly 2018: The French president was overwhelmingly voted into office, but he has failed to deliver a common touch

Emmanuel Macron meets with US President Donald Trump in New York on September 24, 2018, a day before the start of the UN General Assembly. AFP Photo 
Emmanuel Macron meets with US President Donald Trump in New York on September 24, 2018, a day before the start of the UN General Assembly. AFP Photo 

With bad ratings from opinion polls ringing in his ears, French President Emmanuel Macron arrived at the United Nations general assembly on Tuesday, probably grateful for some respite from troubles at home.

In his speech, the French leader said that unilateral initiatives would not work to solve the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an apparent jab at US President Donald Trump, who moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem earlier this year.

Mr Macron has styled himself as the prominent opponent of growing populism in both America and Europe, an image that has boosted his international standing. But, less than a year after Time magazine called him a "boy wonder" and others feted him as rivalling Angela Merkel for de facto leadership of Europe, the tide has changed. The 40-year-old former banker, the youngest elected president in French history, is struggling.

The Elysee palace has been engulfed in damaging revelations, dramatic resignations and barely concealed frustration at the president's autocratic style.

He has had embarrassing encounters on the streets, from telling a boy who addressed him as Manu, a diminutive form of his first name, to call him “Monsieur le President’’, to advising an unemployed horticulturalist to find work in a restaurant.

It suggests a leader out of touch with ordinary voters. He has watched powerless as Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally, a reborn version of her Front National, rises from the ashes of a calamitous presidential campaign and financial scandals, to catch him in the polls.

His popular environment minister Nicolas Hulot, has walked out, seeing little hope of realising his green ambitions in the face of a head of state derided as "a president for the rich".

And Gerard Collomb, as interior minister one of the key figures in a nation confronting a terrorist threat, has announced he will leave office next year to run again for mayor in the eastern city of Lyon.

There had been speculation about tension with the president, especially over the much-delayed reorganisation of Islam in France and the astonishing case of Alexandre Benalla, the Elysee security officer belatedly sacked after allegedly assaulting a May day demonstrator while accompanying a police patrol and carrying a gun. Yet shortly before Mr Collomb revealed his intention to step down, an official insisted not "the width of a cigarette paper" separated them.

________________

Read more:

Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani set for UN clash

How is the order of speakers at the UN General Assembly decided?

The most memorable moments of the UN General Assembly

________________

On the diplomatic front, a president who grandly promised to rule France like Jupiter, king of the ancient Roman gods, has proved less commanding.

His lack of experience and grit shows against fellow European leaders from the battle-hardened Mrs Merkel to the combative upstart, Italy's far right Matteo Salvini, a deputy prime minister but seen as his country's real political force.

The supreme self-confidence displayed by Mr Macron when trouncing Ms Le Pen in the 2017 election has not so much evaporated as evolved into haughtiness.

At the Salzburg EU summit last week, he snubbed the beleaguered British prime minister Theresa May barely a month after entertaining her at his Mediterranean presidential retreat, Bregancon.

Even at a time when the desire to be European means Brexit demands strength, Mr Macron's approach has not played well.

"He is seen as aloof, arrogant and aristocratic – all things the French hate," says Andrew Hussey, a Paris-based author and academic.

A protester is silhouetted in tear gas during clashes with riot police during a demonstration against the French government's labour reforms in Paris, on September 21, 2017. EPA Photo
A protester is silhouetted in tear gas during clashes with riot police during a demonstration against the French government's labour reforms in Paris, on September 21, 2017. EPA Photo

Mr Hussey, whose authoritative work, The French Intifida, described hostility between the state and the country's large Muslim community, credits Mr Macron for his recent acknowledgement that France tortured and killed a young supporter of the Algerian rebellion then fighting the ultimately successful war of independence.

He also praises attempts to tackle poverty in the immigrant-dominated suburbs. "But the French cannot warm to him. I spent a day with Le Pen supporters – not bad people. There was a factory owner, a nurse, people who've come from somewhere whereas Macron came from nowhere and seems the emperor without clothes."

A decline in public trust can be traced to early in his presidency, when dipping approval ratings began to coincide with gushing international acclaim.

The president picked a public quarrel with the head of his armed services, Gen Pierre de Villiers, over defence spending, and when the general resigned, saying he no longer felt equipped to ensure France's security, Mr Macron sternly reminded a military garden party: "I am the boss."

A poll published by Le Journal du Dimanche on the eve of Mr Macron's three-day trip to New York, to be followed by a tour of hurricane-ravaged areas of the French Caribbean, showed only 29 per cent satisfied with his performance in office, a second successive monthly fall of five points.

"Usually, the prime minister gets the stick when things go wrong," said Helene Conway-Mouret, a senator who served with Mr Macron in the socialist government of Francois Hollande. Mr Macron then left office, admitting he was not a socialist at all, formed his centrist movement, now called La Republique En Marche, and began his meteoric rise to the Elysee.

"I found him quick-thinking, clever and approachable." she said.

"He struck me as incredibly polite and charming. But as president, he doesn't always come over as genuine.

"There’s a gap between what he says and what he does. I think it's a function of never having been elected before the presidentials. He'd never had to develop a link with people, and talks to them as if from the top of his mountain, never coming down to the level of the villager."

The French saw him as young, dynamic and most of all someone to stop Ms Le Pen, she recalled. "But they quickly realised that behind the curtain, there was not very much – no ideology, no real programme – just an image he was selling, a lot of empty air."

A common complaint is that Mr Macron sees his power as absolute and rides roughshod over ministers and his parliamentary majority.

The result, said Mrs Conway-Mouret, has been a series of badly prepared, rushed policy texts and the stigmatising of groups: students, educators, the striking railworkers he was determined to defeat "as Margaret Thatcher did the miners".

Beyond the gimmicks – a pricey Elysee gift shop and protracted handshakes with President Donald Trump – and the extravagances, a swimming pool for Bregancon and a 1,200-piece dinner service for the Elysee costing anything between 50,000 and 500,000 euros (Dh2.16m) depending on reports, Emmanuel Macron needs something to cheer up his own disillusioned elements.

Likened by one French Muslim critic as a new "sun king", a reference to both Louis XIV's monumental vanity and his persecution of a religious minority (Protestant Huguenots), he could benefit from finding an elusive common touch.