John Lichfield For Members

OPINION: Next year in France is likely to be even tougher and Macron will need to step up

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Next year in France is likely to be even tougher and Macron will need to step up
French President Emmanuel Macron faces more challenges in September. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

As the political year draws to a close and parliament prepares for its summer break, John Lichfield looks back at how Emmanuel Macron has performed during a series of crises, and what he will need to do in September.


President Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation on Monday from 16,000 kilometres away. He was in Nouvelle Calédonie, part of a country on which the sun never sets.

Macron in the Pacific was speaking to France, about France, from France. And yet there was something emblematic all the same in the President’s great distance from the vast majority of his fellow citizens.

The TV interview - postponed on July 14th and again last week - brought to an end a political year in which he has sometimes seemed disconnected from the country that he governs.


Sometimes that disconnection was deliberate. The President imposed a necessary pension reform against the wishes of 70 percent of French voters. That was either foolhardy or courageous or both. I lean towards the “courageous” side of the argument.

But there have also been long periods in the 15 months since he was re-elected in May of last year when Macron has vanished from the domestic radar.

He went missing during the parliamentary elections last June, with consequences that will probably handicap his second mandate to its close in 2027. For several months he absented himself from the debate, or psycho-drama, about pension reform.

He has also been strangely silent - until Monday - on the calamitous, urban and suburban riots in France which happened almost a month ago.

Since his re-election, Macron has been very active - sometimes hyperactive - on international and European affairs. Domestically, he has often seemed disengaged; frustrated; inconsistent.

I am not a Macron-basher. I believe, contrary to widespread prejudice in France and elsewhere, that Emmanuel Macron is a well-meaning, far-sighted politician who puts many of his French rivals and foreign counterparts to shame.

For all his failures, he has succeeded where his predecessors failed in boosting enterprise and job creation in France and starting a fragile shift back towards manufacturing and full-employment.

But his lack of grass-roots political experience and his failure to build a self-standing political movement in the last six years - his conceit and his isolation - sometimes betray him. The last month has seen Macron at his best and at his worst.

He was at his best in his decision to re-imagine decades of French foreign policy and support a rapid enlargement of NATO to Ukraine and of the European Union to Ukraine and the Balkans.


He was at his worst in the handling of the reshuffle of Elisabeth Borne’s government last week and his strange, month-long near-silence on the riots.

There had been weeks of rumours that Borne would be dumped and that Macron’s minority governing coalition in the National Assembly would be expanded to the Right.

In the end, Borne survived and so did the big beasts in her cabinet. The principal victims were the ministers of education and health, Pap Ndiaye and François Braun, non-political experts who were brought enthusiastically into government by Macron last year and rapidly, and maybe unfairly, dismissed as errors of casting.

Macron said on Monday that he has re-endorsed Elisabeth Borne with “clarity and confidence”. Hardly.

Whether he intended to do so or not, his reappointment of the Prime Minister has come over as grudging and unenthusiastic.

The announcement was made without fanfare in a statement to selected news media. Borne wanted to resign symbolically and be re-appointed as the head of a much-changed administration. Macron insisted on a limited number of “adjustments” - hinting at the possibility of a much bigger reshuffle next year.

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After delaying his summer address to the nation, the President had two attempts at it - both failed.

His remarks to the new cabinet last Thursday were televised in the middle of the morning. It was as if he was saying: “will this do?”

Then he gave a TV interview from Nouvelle Calédonie on Monday, which managed to seem both scripted and chaotic, planned and unsatisfactory.

The President’s long-delayed statement on the riots was odd. He claimed credit for the fact that they lasted only five days, compared to the three weeks of rioting in 2005. He said the solutions were “order, order, order” and “better parenting”.

He appeared to want to avoid the core issues of police violence and the profound alienation of a section (not all) of teenage boys and young men in the multi-racial suburbs. The issues caught up with him all the same.

He was asked to comment on the fact that France’s national police chief, Frédéric Veaux, had protested against the imprisonment on remand of a Marseille policeman accused (with others) of savagely beating a young man during the riots.

Were the police above the law? Not at all, the President said, but he could understand the “emotion” of colleagues of the jailed officer after so many police and gendarmes had been injured in the riots.

Macron’s remarks were immediately attacked as “anti-police” on the Right and too defensive of police on the Left.

The President is often mocked for his habit of saying “en même temps” (at the same time) and trying to present both sides of an argument. On this occasion, he had no choice.


Right-wing politicians disgraced themselves by suggesting that police should be exempt from the rigour of the justice system because they had defended France from “barbarians”. Radical left-wing politicians refused to accept that the police can be at once partly to blame for the riots and heroes/heroines of the nation for combating them.

Macron’s remarks on the jailed Marseille cop were reasonable enough. His difficulties arise because he has dodged speaking out on the riots for so long. He knew that this was an issue which dangerously polarised the nation and any attempt at balance would be mocked.

He failed to seize the narrative. When he finally tried to do so, his prepared remarks came over as inadequate and banal.

The Marseille cop issue threatens to become dangerous for Macron. A de-facto strike by police officers in the south is spreading.

The episode also points to a core weakness in the Macron presidency. He has a theoretically clear vision of where he wants to take France - independence and fairness through a stronger economy and improved public services. He is not a natural politician capable of a) building a saga of national destiny or b) reacting to “events, dear boy, events”.

Macron has in some respects succeeded (lower employment, greater foreign investment, more spending on education and health). “Macronism” as originally billed in 2017 - healing destructive left-right political divisions, giving France a new sense of direction - has failed.

The country is no longer split in two but split into three. The Left and the Right have shifted towards the extremes. Can the new Centre hold under Macron and the reprieved Elisabeth Borne?

The next political year, starting with the rentrée in September, looks likely to be even tougher than 2022-3. France will need a full-time, not a semi-detached, President.


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