For a man with a reputation as a bit of an egghead, Emmanuel Macron has acquired a sudden passion for sport. In recent weeks, he’s been seen at rugby matches and football internationals, invited the Lyon women’s football team to the Élysée Palace to celebrate their Champions League win, and found time to chat with Chris Froome during the cyclist’s ride to a fourth Tour de France title. He’s even donned boxing gloves and sparred with a young pugilist as a means of promoting Paris’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics.
The message from the 39-year-old Macron is clear, as crystal as Tony Blair’s when he was elected British prime minister in 1997, having courted sports idols and rock stars during his campaign: I am young, I am dynamic and I am a new leader for a new age. Like Blairism, Macron’s pitch is aimed at an international audience. Unlike Blairism, it’s not necessarily off to a flying start.
In those early years, Britain couldn’t get enough of Blair, and his carefully crafted Cool Britannia captured the imagination of a country where the spread of the internet created opportunities for edgy innovation. Tony was refreshing, a welcome injection of pizzazz after the grey years of John Major’s premiership, and he was seen as the right man for the new millennium, a leader interested in the future and not in the past. Across the Channel, the French could only look on in envy, ruled as they were by President Jacques Chirac, then 65, a career politician with questionable ethics, whose main cultural interest was ancient Japanese art.
Envious the French might have been, but they were also in awe of Cool Britannia and a new expression entered their lexicon — ‘So British’, as in quirky, irreverent and typical of those cool cats on the other side of the Channel.
Perfidious Albion had never been so in vogue and tens of thousands of French headed across the Channel to share in the success of Cool Britannia. Over the past two decades, many have settled in London, but French accents can now also be heard across the UK; predominantly young men and women, get-up-and-go sorts, ambitious and out to make something of their lives.
These are now the people that Macron wants to lure back to their homeland to be part of his French resurgence. ‘We are at the beginning of a new wave,’ he said during a visit in June to Viva Technology in Paris, a trade show billed as the place to foster innovation. ‘And this is the place to be, to invest, to work, to invent. We need a nation that thinks and moves like a startup.’
But are the French sold? The polls suggest not. This month, Macron’s approval rating has plummeted ten percentage points the biggest drop for a new leader since Chirac suffered a 15 percentage point dip in 1995. Macron would do well to remember that he was elected as much by default as by desire. Polls have revealed that more than half of his 20 million voters in the second round of the election were motivated more by a determination to block Marine Le Pen than by his policies. Even in the first round of voting, Macron benefited most from the disastrous campaigns of the Socialist party and the centre-right Republicans; a survey in Libération disclosed that only 58 per cent of his voters supported him out of conviction, compared to 81 per cent of Le Pen’s and 84 per cent of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s, the far-left candidate.
This seems to have been lost on Macron, who is promising a clean break with the Ancien Régime, a country no longer governed by the same self-serving clique. For too long France has been in thrall to the soixante-huitards, that self-obsessed generation of half a century ago. Once revolutionaries, they became relics, clinging grimly to power in all walks of life, overseeing a moral and intellectual decay. This year’s elections swept all but a few soixante-huitards from political power, and under Macron it’s becoming clear that France is no longer a country for old men. Ask General Pierre de Villiers, who resigned as head of the armed forces two weeks ago. His mistake was to question his president’s €850 million defence cuts, which elicited from Macron a petulant: ‘I am your leader.’
The general is 61 — three years younger than Macron’s wife — but Brigitte is one senior citizen that the president needs. He seduced her when she was his schoolteacher. How cool is that!
It’s not just the French that the president wants to attract. In February this year, during a visit to London, Macron boldly declared it his intention to ‘get talented people in research and lots of fields working here to come to France… I want banks, talents, researchers, academics and so on’.
Sensing Brexit as an opportunity to strip Britain of its finest brains, Macron even had the gall to make his pitch outside No. 10. He was similarly brazen last month, telling American scientists frustrated with Donald Trump’s position on climate change that there is always a home for them in France.
To persuade these people to move, Macron has not only to create the right economic environment; he has also had to make it a cool place in which to live. He wants the hipsters, the entrepreneurs, the innovators to launch their businesses, to show that France is now a country where technology and not tradition reigns.
A few years ago, the idea of American boffins and British bankers flocking to France would have been unthinkable. French-bashing was at its height. The English-speaking world mocked the Gallic obsession with red tape. ‘Sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat,’ was how Andy Street, then managing director of John Lewis, described the French economy in 2014.
That same year Macron was appointed economy minister in the Socialist government and, in an interview with the BBC, he was asked by Robert Peston if he could modernise France without a major conflict with the unions. ‘I do believe we can do it,’ he said, ‘because French people share the conviction that we have to reform the country and even if we have demonstrations it will not be a showstopper.’
Macron is now in a position to put his theory to the test. The economic reforms he believes are necessary to transform France include an instruction to local authorities to cut spending by €13 billion in order to meet the Brussels target of a budget deficit below 3 per cent of GDP. This fits with his vision of a smaller public sector in France and more private enterprise. Opening the world’s biggest startup hub in Paris at the start of this month, Macron clearly felt at home among the ambitious entrepreneurs as he toured the 34,000 m sq complex housed in a former train station. Addressing his 2,000-strong audience, Macron said the hub’s original purpose was symbolic as ‘a station is a place where the successful cross paths with those who are nothing’. It’s not the first time he has been accused of sneering superiority. Last year a demonstrator mocked his expensive suit, to which Macron snapped: ‘The best way to afford a suit is to work.’
Manna from heaven for a man like Mélenchon, who never misses an opportunity to portray Macron as a rich and ruthless elitist, whose determination to unleash France’s entrepreneurial spirit will enrich the few and impoverish the many.
This is the greatest challenge for Macron: how to ensure his vision for the future triumphs over Mélenchon’s, who — in alliance with the unions, communists and hard-left — will do everything in his power to prevent the president pushing through his reforms. Mélenchon, who counts Hugo Chávez among his political idols, is enjoying a renaissance every bit as extraordinary as Jeremy Corbyn’s, exploiting the gullibility of youth by promising them security and equity in a cruel world run by evil capitalists. Mélenchon’s anti-establishment anger arguably represents the spirit of the 2010s more than Macron’s reheated 1990s centrism. In last month’s parliamentary elections, his Insoumise party won 17 seats in the National Assembly, and he has called on his supporters to join him in Paris on 23 September to ‘protest against the social coup d’état’.
Mélenchon’s protest is sure to be the first of many and, if last year’s demonstrations are anything to go by — when François Hollande’s Socialist government tried to push through minor tweaks to the labour laws —they will be violent. On the fringe of the far-left is a hardcore of hoodlums who sweep through cities like locusts, destroying everything in their path, from shops to businesses to hospitals. They loathe Macron, the former Rothschild banker, and the president may be in for a shock if he thinks their reaction to his reforms ‘will not be a showstopper’.
In the past 25 years, street protests have weakened the resolve and undermined the reputation of every French president and the unions see Macron as just another leader to be humiliated. New Labour never had to face down such antipathy.
How Macron stands up to the hard left in September will define his presidency. Many in France are sceptical that he will rise to the challenge; they want him to, but they believe he’ll cave in when confronted with violent street protests. If he does, his credibility will be in tatters and it’s unlikely he’ll be able to repair it before the 2022 elections. Macron may have cut the ground from under the feet of the Republicans but they will regroup, most likely under the leadership of Laurent Wauquiez, just three years Macron’s senior, and a man who believes the best way to attack the president is tack to the right on issues such as Islam and immigration.
Then there’s Angela Merkel, who for the moment is indulging the boy wonder. Assuming she wins another term of office in September, the German Chancellor will pressurise the French President to make good on his economic pledges — or he can forget about his ambition to reinvigorate the Franco-German alliance.
It’s going to be a challenging autumn for Macron so perhaps it’s not surprising he’s having fun in the summer sun. Once, French presidents were inveterate philanderers but this one is an incorrigible twitterer, unable to resist a photo opportunity to burnish his credentials as the king of cool. Nonetheless his decision last week to dress up as a fighter pilot to address personnel at a French air base was provocatively imperious given his treatment of General de Villiers, and bearing in mind he’s the first president of the Fifth Republic never to have served in the military. It was such a preposterous gesture one might have thought it was tongue-in-cheek but that would ignore Macron’s towering vanity. This is man who from an early age has been groomed for greatness; a millionaire by his early thirties and a president by his late thirties. No wonder, as Le Figaro put it last month, he thinks of himself as a cross between Jesus, Jupiter and Louis XIV.
Such insults won’t much bother Macron as he looks to rebrand France, as Blair did with Britain two decades ago. This week the French president has hosted pop superstars Bono and Rihanna at the Élysée as he continues with his quest to become the coolest politician on the planet. Music, along with sport, is a central theme in this strategy. During the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Élysées, the military band broke from tradition by playing ‘Get Lucky’ by the French electro band Daft Punk. Macron, sitting alongside Donald Trump, was in his element.
Enjoy it while you can, Monsieur Le President for, as Tony Blair will testify, political luck doesn’t last forever.