Running France is a thankless task and Macron’s schoolboy looks and can-do demeanour are bound to fade. But his actions and policies show he is a determined reformer.
Assessing a new leader’s progress after 100 days is not an arbitrary exercise. American President Franklin D Roosevelt famously highlighted his achievements after this time period in a 1933 summer radio broadcast, saying it had been “devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal”. Since then, ambitious commentators have often tried to gauge the effectiveness of an administration after just over three months.
In France, Emmanuel Macron reaches the 100th day anniversary of his astonishing presidential election win today. It is of course a cue for enemies to try to rip his reputation to shreds. Traditionalists from both left and right are naturally antipathetic towards a newcomer who in May humiliated both the governing Socialists and opposition Republicans. The former now portray Macron as an ex-banker turned amoral tool of big business, while the latter think he is a puny media creation who will fall apart when faced with his first real challenge.
The reality is that Macron fulfils none of these laboured caricatures. On the contrary, he has already shown he is ready to take on vested interests, and to transform society in a manner that none of his predecessors were able to do. Those sniping boorishly at the 39-year-old’s much older wife, Brigitte Macron, or his huge enthusiasm for the EU, might well have missed some key summer developments that will have a profound effect on the immediate future of France.
In August – the month when blubbery heads of state are normally photographed on Riviera beaches before appearing in Paris Match feature spreads – a parliament dominated by Macron’s REM! party (The Republic on the Move!) passed a law aimed at creating more jobs. The legislation will liberalise the labour market by giving employers more power to negotiate working conditions at a local level, rather than according to industry-wide agreements.
Just as crucially, the initiative guarantees that trade unions are involved, so introducing the consensus that is such an important part of Macron’s overall project. In a country where us-and-them apathy is blamed for leaving close to three-and-a-half million people out of work, the President has made a united effort to reduce unemployment his priority.
Long-overdue institutional changes have also included a bill to prevent politicians from hiring direct family members. “Penelopegate” – the scandal that saw conservative presidential hopeful François Fillon accused of channelling hundreds of thousands in taxpayers’ money to his British wife Penelope Fillon – was a prime example of how “serving one’s own” has perhaps been a prevalent maxim in French public life for far too long. This is one of the main reasons for France’s relative stagnation in recent decades, and it is high time somebody ended it, and the sleaze with which it is associated.
Beyond proving himself a skilled technocrat – somebody who can turn ambitious domestic pledges into reality – Macron is also working hard to boost France’s standing overseas. He has just helped bring the 2024 Olympics to Paris following the humiliation of losing the 2012 bid to London, for example. Thus the indisputably clean-cut Macron is attempting to combine patriotic panache with a sense of morality. Unlike the last two presidents, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, he demonstrates no inclination towards dedicating large chunks of his time in office to a racy love life, or to pushing for personal gains in any way.
I had just interviewed Macron in Paris on the eve of his election victory, when news came in that Russian hackers had accessed thousands of emails and files related to his campaign. Much of this once confidential data has now been made public in a WikiLeaks dump, but reveals no controversy whatsoever.
In contrast, the resolutely vulgar Sarkozy is, like his former colleague Fillon, also charged with obtaining money illegally. Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist president before Sarkozy, was tried and convicted for embezzling state funds. Go back as far as François Mitterrand, the last Socialist chef d’état before Hollande, and you will find another thoroughly shady character who kept a mistress and child on the public purse.
Of course Macron is making mistakes. Many think he is too reactionary in terms of foreign policy, especially after his crass references to African women having too many babies, and indications that he could accept murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule if it meant bringing some kind of peace in Syria. This sense of pandering to callous zealots was furthered by his glad-handling of alt-right populist US President Donald Trump and far-right hawk Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who is regularly accused of war crimes against the Palestinian people – during the two men’s respective visits to France in July.
Some are also critical of the way in which Macron, the supreme head of all French military, forced the resignation of army chief Pierre de Villiers by disrespecting him in discussions over budget cuts. Macron was certainly brash and confrontational, although one would expect that de Villiers, a veteran of theatres of war including Afghanistan, should get over it.
No, Macron is not on the fast track to becoming a French Roosevelt. Yes, we are likely to see plenty of fierce street protests against his new policies by September at the latest, and his popularity ratings will continue to slide. Running France is a thankless task and Macron’s schoolboy looks and can-do demeanour are bound to fade.
However, the 25th President of France has immense respect for the institution of the presidency. He will still only be in his 40s if he completes two terms – a feat that the often comically inept “bling-bling” Sarko and “Flanby” [a type of caramel pudding] Hollande never got close to – and won’t just cruise towards a cushy retirement. If we have learned anything from his first 100 days, it is that Emmanuel Macron is a determined reformer who really does want to get the wheels of a new deal for his ailing country spinning as quickly as possible.