Emmanuel Macron, the cleverest boy in class, faces his biggest test ever

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Five years ago, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron — France’s youngest leader since Napoleon — strode alone on to a stage at the Louvre to launch his presidency. It’s the most hopeful French moment I’ve experienced in nearly 20 years living in Paris. This month he’ll probably get re-elected. So what’s his half-term report card?

Unlike other recent presidents, Macron set out to transform France. So far, he has merely improved it. He loosened up the labour market, making hiring and firing easier, and so helped cut unemployment from 10 per cent to 7.4 per cent, the lowest level since 2008, and near the 7 per cent target that seemed implausible when he set it in 2017. He halved many class sizes in primary schools in poorer areas. And because, psychologically, he travels alone, without cronies or even friends, he was free to take on the political class. His law on the “moralisation of politics” has genuinely reduced corruption. Among other things, he stopped politicians hiring relatives or spending cash handouts as they chose.

Hardly anyone is talking about his reforms of France, though. From the gilets jaunes uprising of 2018 through to today’s cost-of-living shock, Macron has been a crisis manager. Managing Covid-19 looked impossible in France, the most vaccine-sceptical of 140 countries in the 2018 Gallup-Wellcome survey. But Macron gambled by introducing a “sanitary pass”, which made vaccination compulsory for anyone wanting to enter a restaurant, train or many public spaces. It worked: France’s vaccination rate of 78 per cent exceeds Germany’s and Britain’s, and its excess mortality rate of +6 per cent during the pandemic beats all of its neighbours except Germany.

Macron still intends to transform France, and Europe too. More than other democratic leaders, a French president has scope to think long term. Since Charles de Gaulle wrote the job description into the constitution for himself in 1958, the president faces few checks and balances other than trade-union strikes. This is especially true of Macron: he controls parliament through the party that he created as his personal vehicle. Given that he needs little sleep, has no kids and can leave day-to-day affairs to his prime minister, he is unusually free to think great thoughts.

Like him or not, he’s a serious leader. His predecessors wasted time striking empty poses: President Nicolas Sarkozy attacked the burka, worn by 0.04 per cent of French Muslims, and François Hollande promised a 75 per cent tax (soon ruled unconstitutional) on the very few French people earning over €1mn. Next door, Boris Johnson plays with symbols: blue passports and “wars” over statues and fish.

Macron often fails, but generally while chasing very big game. He believes his superpower is charming older men, and he unleashed it unsuccessfully on Trump and now Putin. His vision for Europe long seemed a fantasy: more shared spending across the EU, and more autonomous European efforts on defence. But now pandemic and war are creating a Macronian Europe. For his second term, he’s still aiming high: he plans to raise the French pensionable age from 62 to 65, because people his fellow citizens now live to 82, and France overspends on pensions.

The jumped-up little ex-banker, the cleverest boy in class, who won the French system from adolescence, inevitably provokes hatred. Voters suspect, probably correctly, that he looks down on them. Marine Le Pen may yet beat him, even though her campaign leaflets (quickly shredded) showed her proudly shaking Putin’s hand.

The one-third of voters who will back the far-right in Sunday’s first round reject colour-blind republicanism. They detest real existing multicultural France, spin fantasies about religious civil war and want to deport immigrants, especially Muslims. Years of terrorist attacks have left a national post-traumatic stress disorder. Depressingly, Macron has rarely spoken out for a mixed France. On the French left, revolutionary talk thrives. The current standard-bearer, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, supports Cuba, Venezuela and, until February, Russia — but not Nato.

Yet the melting away of French anti-vaccination poses taught me something: most French people talk more radically than they think. France’s lost empire, its revolutionary past and the liberté, égalité, fraternité motto on every public building, all encourage utopian and grandiose rhetoric. Everyday reality inevitably disappoints.

Importantly, though, the rhetoric isn’t necessarily what people believe. Many French extremist voters are striking an aesthetic pose rather than expressing a political position. Lots of them quietly want a smart-suited overeducated elitist to become president. They know that has always happened since 1945. It will probably happen again this month. But with a perennially miserable electorate and low turnout, accidents can happen.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at [email protected]

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