Analysis The Center Can Hold

Don’t Panic About Macron’s Reelection (Yet)

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Sebastian Kurz Emmanuel Macron
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and French president Emmanuel Macron speak on the sidelines of a summit in Brussels, April 10, 2019 (BKA/Arno Melicharek)

One constant of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency has been Anglo-American handwringing about his popularity.

This started almost immediately after he defeated Marine Le Pen in 2017, when Macron’s support fell from 66 percent in the election to just over 50 percent in the opinion polls.

The Guardian called it a “precipitous decline in approval ratings.”

It was about to get worse.


Macron’s popularity dived again when he introduced labor reforms that made it easer for firms to hire and fire workers; something he had argued for as economy minister in the previous administration and explicitly campaigned on.

The former banker, stereotyped as the “president of the rich”, knew the liberalizations would make him unpopular in the short term. He told Le Point magazine, “I’m going to have to live for months with the people’s impatience.” That turned out to be years.

Macron was confident, though, that the reforms would bear fruit — and they did.

Before the pandemic, business creation was up 60 percent from 2016. France had overtaken Germany and the United Kingdom as the top destination of foreign investment in Europe. Unemployment was at its lowest since the euro crisis.

A 2017 column in The New York Times had predicted Macron would become another “failed” president and “chip away at what remains of the French welfare state.”

In fact, French welfare spending remained stable during his tenure at 31 percent of GDP, the highest share in the world. Left-wing fears were overblown.


So were liberal fears. The likes of the Financial Times and Der Spiegel worried Macron would disappoint. He has become the biggest reformer since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Macron allowed buses to compete with rail, convinced Germany to support his proposals for EU reform, eased regulations on French businesses, ended automatic pay rises and early retirement in the state railway company, extended unemployment insurance to the self-employed, made dental services, eyeglasses and hearing aids free of charge, reduced labor migration from Eastern Europe and introduced pension reforms that will end discrepancies between workers in the public and private sectors. (COVID has put them on hold.)

Macron played a prominent role in promoting the Paris Climate Agreement and has conditioned approval of an EU free-trade agreement with South America on protection of the Amazon rainforest.

Yellow Vests

When a rise in gasoline tax, to encourage the use of public transport and electric cars, gave reactionary France an excuse to vent long-held frustrations about being neglected by Paris, and Macron’s approval rating fell to its lowest yet, it justified another litany of premature political obituaries.

According to Time magazine, the protests “exposed” just how “fragile” Macron’s hold on France was — as if the absence of protest is how we measure success in a democratic society.

The Independent detected “leftist populism” in the Yellow Vests — when demonstrators were more likely to be right- than left-wing.

New York magazine thought the movement was about “inequality” — when French inequalities in income and wealth haven’t changed during Macron’s presidency and remain among the lowest in the world.

The left-wing The Nation insisted the anger was about “ever-increasing burdens on the working class” — when the Yellow Vests were largely middle-class.

And so forth.

C’est ça la France

Far too many English-speaking journalists interpret events in France through the lens of their own politics.

They look at Macron’s 35- to 40-percent approval rating and panic, not realizing that’s a perfectly average score for a French president.

Jacques Chirac’s approval rating fell below 20 percent in 2002 and he was comfortably reelected. After his death in 2019, the French ranked him as their most successful president since Charles de Gaulle.

(It is an enduring mystery why one of the wealthiest and objectively best-governed nations in the world should have such low confidence in their leaders while they are in office only to revere them in death.)

Macron can’t count on the same margin by which Chirac defeated father Le Pen, but not a single poll has shown him losing to the daughter. In a hypothetical runoff against the far-right leader, Macron would garner between 52 and 56 percent support.

That’s down from the 66 percent he won in 2017, but that year polls had underestimated his support, putting it at 59 to 63 percent.

I don’t mean to suggest Macron can’t possibly lose, but headlines like “Le Pen gains ground for 2022 elections,” when her popularity hasn’t budged in two years; “Emmanuel Macron’s troubles open up space for Marine Le Pen” and “Macron could go down in history as the president who handed France to the far right” are at best premature.