Two weeks ago, in his first TV interview since taking office in May, French President Emmanuel Macron was adamant about what he wants to achieve: “I’m not here to manage or reform, I’m here to transform,” he said.
For Macron, that’s easier said than done. The self-styled centrist has run into the brick wall of reality, his aspirations colliding with the world of governing.
During his presidential campaign, Macron promised to create a more economically competitive France by overhauling France’s byzantine 3,324-page labor code, a project to encourage sustainable growth that eluded his predecessor, Francois Hollande. Despite criticism from labor unions, he issued an executive decree at the end of August to loosen worker protections that fueled a precipitous drop in his approval ratings and sparked street protests.
Macron also set his sights on deepening European integration, calling for a special “partnership” with Germany and laying out a grand vision of the European Union that balanced sovereignty and cooperation. But Chancellor Angela Merkel’s weakened standing after the German elections imperils the strength of Macron’s partnership with her. After a speech on the future of the European Union in September, Merkel’s spokesperson welcomed the “European passion” shown by Macron but said it was “too early” to comment on his proposals.
The past five months have tested the 39-year-old leader, France’s youngest since Napoleon.
According to a YouGov poll released earlier this month, only 34 percent of French people approve of his performance in office. It’s a problem of his own making. Macron called opponents of his labor reforms “slackers” and fed perceptions that he is aloof, arrogant and out of touch.
Yet these low ratings have done little to shake Macron’s resolve to chart a new direction for France at home and abroad. Instead, he is doubling down, recognizing a future fraught with challenges. He insists France wants a strong executive. Macron told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel: “France is a country of regicidal monarchists. It is a paradox: The French want to elect a king, but they would like to be able to overthrow him whenever they want.”
His imperious style of governing has drawn comparisons to that of a monarch, though one determined to rule above traditional politics—and he has done little to shed this image. As a candidate, Macron said he wanted to rule like Jupiter, the Roman God of the Skies, detached from the daily trivialities that burden lesser leaders. In many ways, he carries himself like Charles de Gaulle, the founder of France’s Fifth Republic who capitalized on the decline of mainstream parties to assume power in 1958—much like Macron did in the recent presidential election.
Similar to de Gaulle, a savvy player of international politics, the French president is intent on carving out a larger global role for France. His speech at the United Nations last month placed France at the opposite end of President Trump’s unilateralist “America First” vision, advancing multilateralism as “the most efficient way to face global challenges. It is the realization of a vision of the world that protects us.” Macron also defended the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal as crucial agreements that must be upheld by the United States.
His policies reveal an ability to walk a tightrope. Macron’s penchant to use the phrase “at the same time” in speeches has become a running joke in France, emblematic of his worldview where he is neither right nor left but a consensus seeker reaching for the center.
While Macron has called for Trump to meet his international obligations, he’s been careful to not completely isolate the American president, leaving open space for negotiation and maneuvering. And during his first trip to Athens last month, Macron fashioned a balancing act worthy of a gymnast by managing not to offend Greece or its creditor Germany, who were mired in contentious negotiations a few years ago over the terms of Greece’s bailout during its debt crisis.
Already, there are signs that Macron wants to reshape Europe’s political order by helping create a new centrist political party to be part of the 2019 European parliamentary elections. But risks remain high: Critics say such steps could increase the divide between E.U. politicians and their citizens.
The self-perceived insurgent in Macron feels up to the task. Describing the pivotal role he sees for himself, he told the Guardian: “If we weren’t at a tragic moment in our history, I would never have been elected. I’m not made to lead in calm weather. My predecessor was, but I’m made for storms.”