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Why Macron matters to the world, not just France
AN estimated 25,000 "yellow vest" protestors took to the streets of France on Saturday and Sunday for the eighth consecutive weekend. The continuing protests have badly weakened President Emmanuel Macron and one of the key political questions in 2019 is whether he can recover some of his former sky-high popularity.
The answer matters not just to France, but also Europe and the world at large, given that Mr Macron has emerged as perhaps the most authoritative defender of the liberal international order in his short period in office. Indeed, the French president alongside his US counterpart Donald Trump currently embody more than any other democratic leaders the present "battle" in international relations between an apparently rising populist tide, often of a right wing disposition, and the liberal centre ground, which will continue to play out in 2019.
The political interplay between the two was on display in Mr Macron's state visit to Washington DC last year when he gave a forceful and passionate denunciation of Mr Trump's "America First" agenda. Despite the friendship forged between the pair, the French president warned in a speech to Congress that Mr Trump's "tempting remedy for our fears" was wrongheaded, and that more progressive, internationalist solutions are needed from tackling climate change to international trade.
Mr Macron's victory in 2017 against Mr Trump's preferred far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen was so striking as it defied the march of conservative populism in numerous countries which had seen parties of the left and centre ground sometimes taking a political battering. Mr Macron's win then appeared to represent at least a partial turnaround in fortunes - in Europe at least - for centre ground politics.
In becoming such a figure head for liberals, Mr Macron has the potential to take over the mantle from Angela Merkel who for perhaps a decade has been the most important political leader in continental Europe. With the German chancellor now seriously weakened, politically, and her long era as chancellor drawing to an end, most of the hopes of centrists around the world rest on the shoulders of Mr Macron and fellow leaders such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
From the perspective of French domestic politics, the critical question for Mr Macron in 2019 will be whether the "yellow vest" protests have extinguished his programme of economic reforms. These changes were thrown into question after the president announced in December that he has backtracked on a fuel tax hike and announced billions of euros in aid to try to end the several weeks of protests.
In his New Year address, Mr Macron asserted that the reforms will continue, and insisted that his government "can do better" at improving the lives of citizens across the nation. Yet, many "yellow vest" protestors continue to be angry, and many of them are calling for him to leave office.
This last weekend of demonstrations coincided with a poll released on Friday showing that 75 per cent of the population are unhappy with the way Mr Macron is running the country. The survey, for franceinfo and the Figaro newspaper, compares bleakly for Mr Macron to one from April 2018 when "only" 59 per cent of those surveyed were unhappy with the government, and when the top priority for the French populace was finding ways to boost consumer purchasing power.
The poll, and continuing protests, underline the volatility of the political mood in France which, ironically, helped propel Mr Macron's meteoric rise to power in 2017. It was this similar anti-establishment political sentiment that put the country into unchartered territory by ensuring Mr Macron's En Marche! party - which was only founded in April 2016 - could win not only the presidency, but also handsomely win the legislative ballots with one of the biggest majorities since former president Charles de Gaulle's 1968 landslide victory.
In both instances, Mr Macron proved a foil not just to Ms Le Pen and fellow conservative and other populists by positioning himself against what he calls the old left and right. Temporarily, this had left his opponents disorientated by upending the traditional two party duopoly of centre-left Socialists and centre-right Republicans.
In this continuing volatile context, the outlook is highly uncertain for the remainder of Mr Macron's presidency. Although a majority of voters decided to favour hope (Mr Macron) over anger (Ms Le Pen) around a year and a half ago, the tide could still turn decisively against him if he fails to address what appears to be widespread anti-establishment anger fuelled by economic pain which has seen the country suffer years of double digit unemployment and also low growth which pre-date his presidency.
Part of the challenge here for Mr Macron, the youngest president in the six-decade long French Fifth Republic, has been the very high initial expectations surrounding his presidency. Here, he will be acutely aware how early optimism during the last two presidencies of Nicholas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande fizzled away with both ultimately becoming unpopular one-term heads of state. Indeed, Mr Hollande - who became the least popular president since records began - even decided not to seek re-election, the first incumbent not to try for a second term in the Fifth Republic.
The odds in play are so high because, given voter discontent with the Republicans and Socialists, if Mr Macron fails with his political programme, the primary beneficiaries of discontent with him may well be extreme anti-establishment figures such as the leader of the far-right National Front, Ms Le Pen. Although Ms Le Pen was comprehensively beaten by Mr Macron in 2016, she nonetheless secured more than 40 per cent of the vote and is young enough to run potentially in several more French presidential elections.
To regain the political initiative in this context, and become a powerful contender for a second term of office, it is likely that Mr Macron will have to rebuild public confidence in his policy agenda. During his election campaign, he showed that politicians of the liberal, centre ground often benefit from having an optimistic, forward-looking vision for tackling complex, long-term policy challenges like stagnant living standards, and re-engaging people with the political process, to help build public confidence around solutions to them.
Tackling such tough-to-solve, first-order challenges in this context is a significant hurdle that centrist politicians across much of the world are widely perceived to have failed on, helping give rise to perceptions of a broken political process. Yet, to win back the initiative, Mr Macron will need to skilfully show again how a fair, tolerant, inclusive democratic type of politics can help overcome or ameliorate the challenges that many people are experiencing in a world changing fast in the face of globalisation.
- The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.