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Is Macron the new Blair: Lauded abroad, mocked at home?

Occasionally in our mature and seemingly predictable western democracies comes a politician who claims to re...

Posted: Sep 29, 2018 12:58 PM
Updated: Sep 29, 2018 12:58 PM

Occasionally in our mature and seemingly predictable western democracies comes a politician who claims to represent something new, but not revolutionary. Neither a populist nor even a radical, but a politician who is at once of the system and beyond it. Think Tony Blair, who transformed the British Labour party just before the 1997 landslide and, more recently, Emmanuel Macron, who went further by circumventing France's party system entirely in his bid for the top job.

Both were centrists who believed the center had lost its way, both came in on a wave of euphoria and hope after what had felt like years of inertia. And both had an almost messianic belief in themselves and in their ability to change the system -- not, in their view, to threaten it, but rather to save it.

Emmanuel Macron

Political Figures - Intl

Populism

Society

Tony Blair

Government and public administration

Politics

With hindsight, the confidence and sense of mission that gave Tony Blair the ability to change the Labour party and then Westminster ended up being hubris that would, in 2003, lead him so confidently into a catastrophic and hugely unpopular war in Iraq.

It was his supreme confidence and extraordinary belief in himself (not to mention the chutzpah it took to present so much flimsy evidence on the existence of weapons of mass destruction as fact) that went a long way to convincing many a wavering lawmaker to back him in that now infamous vote in the spring of 2003.

Of course, Emmanuel Macron has not done anything nearly as controversial. But his own hubris threatens him in ways that are strangely familiar.

Mocked for being a 'poodle'

Just as Tony Blair once claimed to have the ear of George W. Bush, Emmanuel Macron has gone out of his way to establish a rapport with Donald Trump. Both Macron and Blair seemed to believe they were getting from the relationships more than they got and both were mocked at home for being the poodles of the very men they hoped to influence.

As a result, both were seeking to punch above their weight internationally even as their own electorates were losing faith.

Surprisingly perhaps, Emmanuel Macron's exchanges with Donald Trump in New York this week left the French press unmoved this time. It was far more preoccupied with the scandal here in France that continues to surround the president's former security aide, Alexandre Benalla.

The publication of a selfie showing him carrying a gun during Macron's campaign has led to an investigation, just weeks after it emerged that the Élysée had initially kept quiet about a video showing Benalla beating up protesters on the sidelines of a May Day demonstration.

It is a story that has led to charges that Macron is out of touch with his electorate and so powerful that those around him are being protected from the law as it applies to others. And so far, Macron has failed to address the anger, leading some to accuse him of hubris.

An interview in which he will speak to the French public for the first time since the scandal broke is expected next month, but it will have taken weeks. And during that time his opinion poll ratings have fallen 12 points to an abysmal 28%.

Meanwhile he has lost a popular environment minister because Macron, who has made himself the guarantor of the Paris climate change agreement, has not, according to Nicolas Hulot, done enough domestically to curb climate change. He has also lost a sports minister and will soon lose his interior minister, Gerard Collomb, who will the leave the government next year in a bid to return to his old job as mayor of Lyon.

Suspicions on the right and the left

Internationally, of course, Macron remains far more popular, partly because he has benefited from the rise of populism elsewhere. To many multilateralists and especially to pro-Europeans, he is the only game in town, his vision standing in stark contrast to the populist nationalism that appears to be spreading on both sides of the Atlantic. He is being rooted for because he has positioned himself as the representative and champion of an entire world vision.

His next battle will be for the soul of Europe. He has made clear that he believes the European elections next spring will be an existential fight for the future of the entire European project. On one hand a growing band of euroskeptic populists who intend to fight the EU from within, and on the other, the sort of European liberalism of which Macron has become the poster child.

The trouble for Macron is that the liberalism -- generally described by the French with a sneer as "Anglo-Saxon" -- that makes him so popular abroad, is also what makes him deeply suspicious to many on both the left and the right in France. And while the European elections may be important to the future of Europe, they are not the electoral test that he needs to worry about.

Speaking to a journalist in New York earlier this week, Macron boasted, when asked about his dismal approval ratings, about the fact that he had the good fortune of not having to face midterms. But as Blair's star declined, the Labour party had Gordon Brown waiting in the wings.

But Macron's La République En Marche party has no one but the man who built it for himself when he launched his improbable presidential bid. And if he goes, there is unlikely to be much left.

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