THE French, it seems, have soured on President Emmanuel Macron, the wunderkind who swept to power 16 months ago. His poll numbers have slumped as the gloss on the 40-year-old upstart has faded. The consensus is in: He’s aloof, Jupiter-like, tone-deaf, devoted to coddling the rich.
What else is new? Turning on the incumbent at the Elysée Palace is a French habit, like impatience with fools. Both Macron’s predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, had slumped in the polls by this stage of their presidencies, although neither as low as the 19 per cent approval rating for Macron in one recent survey. Malaise and ennui are not French words for nothing.
In a whirlwind of activity, Macron has taken aim at the protections and entitlements that have made it hard to hire and fire in France, and sometimes made not working (at least in the official economy) more rewarding than working.
He has reformed a labyrinthine labour code, ended the special status of state railway workers, cut taxes and improved access to job training. He has called the French “resistant to change,” even “lazy.” As Bloomberg reported, the president told an unemployed gardener that he, Macron, could “cross the road and find you” a job immediately in a bar or restaurant. That’s taboo in the can’t-do country par excellence.
Live well, live hidden, goes the old French saying. Financial success is always a little suspect. “Pro-business” remains an insult. Macron, the young disrupter and ex-banker, has been challenging an old country to adjust its self-image, embrace risk over security. Many have tried to do that. Many have failed.
So the domestic honeymoon is over, like the coziness with President Donald Trump that could not stop Trump trashing international agreements dear to Macron (Iran, climate). The rekindled thrill at Macron’s Gaullist pomp has ceded to irritation at his airs. A scandal involving his security chief, Alexandre Benalla, who was caught on video beating up a protester, was handled badly enough to become an “affaire.” Macron can be peremptory when his convictions are challenged. The business of politics engages him less than the burdens of history.
This month, Macron made history — again. He was courageous — again. He challenged the consensus — again. Just as in his presidential campaign when he embraced the European Union at a moment when that looked like the death knell for any political ambition.
I allude here to Macron’s decision to admit to France’s systematic use of torture in the Algerian War and acknowledge that the French army had tortured and killed a young anti-war intellectual, Maurice Audin, in 1957. “In the name of the French Republic,” Macron said on Sept. 13, he recognized that “Maurice Audin was tortured and then executed, or tortured to death, by soldiers who arrested him at his home.” He then went to the home of Audin’s 87-year-old widow, who had pursued the truth for decades, to ask for forgiveness.
For decades, there were two skeletons in the French closet — Vichy and the Algerian War. The shame of France — for its World War II collaboration, for its brutal colonial war — eluded honest accountings. Such lies and evasions are ticking bombs in the fabric of any society.
Macron now joins former President Jacques Chirac, who in 1995 took responsibility for the 1942 “Vel d’Hiv” roundup of Jews, in setting French democracy on a foundation of truth. Macron’s is an immense act, particularly at a moment when American democracy is being undermined by lies.
This month, Macron also aimed a volley of truth at the cast of little-England chameleons, headed by former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who ushered Britain to its unfinest hour, the delusional decision to leave the European Union.
“Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be all right, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home are liars,” he declared. “It’s even more true since they left the day after so as not to have to deal with it.”
These were words that needed saying. With each passing week the immense cost of Britain’s fit of pique becomes clearer. Macron remains Europe’s most vigorous bulwark against the wave of nationalism, nativism, xenophobia and small-mindedness that were expressed in the Brexit vote and have found expression across a continent anxious about immigration.
Macron faces no domestic presidential or parliamentary elections until 2022. With the weakening of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, he is the only European politician who can stand up to the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose illiberal model for the evisceration of democracy through the politics of fear has traction. The European Parliament elections in May 2019 will be an important barometer of the Macron-Orban confrontation.
To be a serious historical figure today is to stand in isolation. Judgment is instantaneous, sometimes irrevocable. Macron has made mistakes. People do. I think he’s the last best hope for the world I believe in and I salute him.
ROGER COHEN is an Op-Ed columnist for ‘The New York Times’, and writes about international affairs and diplomacy