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Don’t Count Out Emmanuel Macron
Despite headwinds, it is too soon to dismiss the French president as a lame duck
French President Emmanuel Macron remains broadly unpopular among voters and faces significant headwinds in the remaining four years of his term. His April 2022 reelection by a commanding margin now feels like a lifetime ago. Now, after muscling through long-sought pension revisions in April, Macron has an approval rating of just 30%. Seemingly endless protests and riots, a divided Parliament, an ongoing migration crisis, trouble in Africa and the war in Ukraine pose tough challenges ahead.
However, despite Macron’s dismal approval rating, it is far too early to write off the French president’s prospects. Not only is the next presidential election more than three years away—scheduled for April 2027—but Macron still has cards to play to move his agenda forward, and he may ultimately be more successful than his present political situation would suggest.
Betting on Pension Reform—and Winning
Let’s take a look at Macron’s record to date. Macron succeeded in his first term in enacting several reforms to improve French competitiveness, including making it easier for companies to hire and fire workers, and cutting business taxes. Additionally, he has been successful in implementing key pillars of his domestic agenda in his second term. His plan to raise the minimum retirement age—from 62 to 64 by 2030—was enacted into law in April. Unlike in the United States, where only 13.5% of working-age adults have a pension, all French workers get a state pension.
Reforming pensions—the third rail of French politics—had long eluded him. Attempts in his first term at pension reform withered under protests. The Macron administration shelved its plans until a second term. Then earlier this year, Macron’s government made use of special powers in the French Constitution that allow for a bill to be passed in the National Assembly without a vote, unless a motion to dissolve the government succeeds. Macron essentially bet the house on pension reform and won.
The reform withstood a constitutional challenge, massive protests and strikes, and a June attempt to repeal it in Parliament. Thanks to the pension overhaul, which has been the keystone policy for his second term, Macron has succeeded in improving the nation’s business climate while shoring up its perilous welfare state. The fact that the administration resorted to using special powers could be read as a sign of weakness. Macron’s Ensemble alliance lost its parliamentary majority in June 2022, and making pension reform a reality required special legislative footwork. But it was also a sign of determination: full steam ahead regardless of obstacles.
Invoking Article 49.3 of the French Constitution is nothing new. In fact, this was the hundredth time the constitutional shortcut had been used since 1958. Macron’s government had made use of it frequently to pass budget bills. While reliance on special powers to force through legislation could serve to delegitimize the government and the law itself in the eyes of the public, it remains a powerful tool. Macron’s government can safely count on the conservative Les Républicains party not to support a motion of no confidence, even if the left-wing bloc and Marine Le Pen’s populist National Rally back it.
Another domestic priority for Macron’s government will be immigration reform. Immigration is a hot-button issue in nearly every European country, but especially in France. The June police shooting of a 17-year-old French youth of Algerian and Moroccan descent in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre set off widespread rioting that shook the country. The violence was not limited to city centers but spread across France, even to smaller towns: In the city of Mâcon in Burgundy, with a population of only 34,000, rioters partially destroyed a sports complex earmarked as a training center for next year’s Olympics.
In the aftermath, public opinion widely condemned violence aimed at police and government institutions, but the shooting reopened wounds that have not healed, once again casting a blazing light on France’s failure to assimilate its large immigrant population. Today, 1 out of 10 people living in France was born in a foreign country. In the hopes of attracting support across the political spectrum, Macron’s government has drafted immigration reform legislation that would provide migrant workers in high-demand sectors (such as agriculture, construction, hospitality, nursing and transportation) a path to legal residency while also allowing more deportations, especially for migrants who commit crimes. But thus far, Macron has been unable to attract support in Parliament, particularly from members of Les Républicains, who do not believe the proposal is robust enough.
Another key domestic priority for Macron, held over from his first term, is education reform, including a reduction in the number of vacation days for students. The Education Ministry recently introduced new measures to tackle a fall in students’ reading level. Similar measures have been introduced for arithmetic and writing. Even the issue of mandatory school uniforms, opposed by the Macron government but supported by the National Rally party and First Lady Brigitte Macron, has been debated.
Meanwhile, the upcoming 2024 Summer Olympics, to be held in Paris, will increasingly consume the government’s time. These will be the first Olympics France has hosted since 1992, and the sixth overall. In addition to some facilities being destroyed or damaged in recent riots, there is growing concern that pollution in the Seine River may upend a plan (for which there is currently no backup) to hold open water events in the famed waterway.
In January, a French official noted that taxpayers could end up footing a bill for €3 billion for the Olympics. The French Army will surely be deployed to aid in securing the games, adding strain to the nation’s already-fatigued armed forces. Then there is the foreign policy component of the games: which foreign leaders are invited and which are not.
Another area of focus domestically will be a “green” agenda, with Macron keen to use tax breaks and government subsidies to advance a transition to electric vehicles and build up French industry in areas like electric batteries. It is more a reaction to the U.S.’s planned $783 billion in government spending on energy and climate under the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act than about easing Europe’s growing dependency on China for so-called green (oftentimes anything but) technologies.
Among these priorities, there are certainly some opportunities for Macron to make political hay. In 2022, the EU included nuclear investments as green—and as the continent’s leader in nuclear power, France could reap the benefits. For example, there are recent reports that Hungary is looking to swap Russian fuel for French fuel at its Paks nuclear reactor. Furthermore, France will continue to rely on nuclear power as the cornerstone of its energy supply (currently supplying 68% of France’s electricity needs), with 14 new reactors planned by 2050.
While the Olympics are costly, they are also prestigious, and that remains important among the French people. Moreover, the French government believes the games will “generate activity for 150,000 jobs in a wide range of areas, including event organisation, tourism, catering and construction.” According to the International Olympic Committee, 90% of suppliers for the games will be French companies, and the government is touting preparation for the two weeks of the Summer Games as an opportunity to bring new health and fitness and outdoor spaces to neighborhoods plagued by high crime and poverty.
On immigration reform, there is countrywide recognition that something must be done. Aspects of Macron’s reform plans, such as facilitating deportation of migrants who commit crimes, are overwhelmingly popular among the public. Taking a major step to address an issue that has long been a flashpoint in French politics could help cement Macron’s legacy.
A Focus on Foreign Affairs
For the remainder of his second term, Macron will continue a heavy emphasis on foreign affairs. Here, the French president has wide latitude to maneuver, and Macron has long sought to retain a global role for France and a high profile for himself. His state visit to China in April was a boon for Beijing, and he was greeted by adoring crowds. But the French president’s messaging contradicted and overshadowed that of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who joined him on the trip. His comments to reporters that Europe without strategic autonomy would become “vassals” to the U.S. drew public support in France but caused consternation in Washington. Strategic autonomy has long been a French position, but not all members of the European Union are buying what Paris is selling.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there has been a recognition throughout Europe that Europeans need to do more to carry the burden of security. France is no exception, investing heavily in defense. In 2022, France spent 1.9% of its GDP on defense and 28.5% of its defense spending on equipment, narrowly missing NATO benchmarks. Earlier this year, France announced a major increase in its defense budget—a planned $450 billion for its 2024-2030 military program compared to $320 billion for 2019-2025, a 40% increase. Its military will now focus largely on plans for high intensity, state-on-state warfare, shifting away from its past emphasis on expeditionary forces and counterterrorism.
Defense is one of the nation’s most important industries, and with defense spending increases across the continent, France’s defense industry will undoubtedly benefit. French arms exports in 2022 hit a record high, totaling €27 billion, an increase of €15.3 billion over 2021.
French policy toward China remains incongruent. On the one hand, France is the European nation with the most at risk in the Indo-Pacific on account of its territories in the region, permanent military bases and nearly 2 million French nationals living there. The French navy regularly takes part in freedom of navigation sailings through the Taiwan Strait, much to the anger of the Chinese Communist Party. At the same time, Paris is keen to retain existing ties and to add new economic linkages with China. Fifty French business leaders joined Macron on his trip to China, and several agreements were signed during the visit, including in the agricultural, energy and transport sectors, as well as agreements on cultural and scientific exchange.
Macron has taken a Janus-like approach to China, with one analyst recently noting that “on the bilateral level, Paris tries to keep the balance, as long as possible, between the preservation of economic interests and a certain lucidity regarding the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party toward a totalitarian rule.” This policy extends to questions such as the role of Chinese telecommunications firms in French 5G networks. Despite legislation curtailing Chinese equipment in its 5G network, companies like Huawei are not entirely banned in France, and the Chinese firm even intends to build its first factory outside China in France’s Alsace region.
Attempting to strike a balanced position on China is beneficial to Macron. Public opinion mirrors this dichotomy, with a third of the French public viewing China as an ally or necessary partner, and 41% viewing China as a rival or adversary. Furthermore, Sino-Franco trade remains strong, with large French companies such as Électricité de France and L’Oréal doing significant business with China. Yet France is also the engine currently driving a push for a tougher EU economic approach toward China.
Macron believes strongly in staking out a European position on China independent from the U.S., and his approach toward China reflects that desire. Preserving access to Chinese markets for French companies while securing support in the EU for subsidies and barriers to Chinese products is a tall order, and one that I don’t think Macron can pull off. Ultimately, he will need to choose between the two.
The national security/foreign policy issue sure to dominate Macron’s second term, however, is not China. It is the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine. French bilateral aid has lagged behind other allied nations, but Paris has provided Ukraine with key weapons systems and technology. Ukrainian soldiers are also training on French soil.
But France has obstacles to overcome in terms of a deficit of trust from Ukrainians. The nation’s role as signatory to the Minsk II agreements, Macron’s failed attempts at diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the full-scale war, and, more recently, wrong-footed attempts to enlist China in an effort to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table have served to undermine French standing in Ukraine. Still, Macron represents a safe harbor of political support for Ukraine inside France: French policy has moved from a goal to “not humiliate” Putin to firm support for Ukraine. Macron’s position now is that France will support Ukraine “until victory,” championing the nation’s entry into both NATO as well as the EU.
Despite the change of heart, I believe the endgame for Macron is to strengthen Ukraine’s position in advance of what he sees as inevitable negotiations, rather than seeking to support Kyiv until its territory is once again whole. Unlike in Eastern European nations, the war against Ukraine isn’t a major part of the French political discourse. However, the French public supports Macron’s position. In the same month that Macron stated French policy was to support Ukraine until victory (December 2022), a poll found that 70% of the public “prefer to reach a negotiated solution, rather than continuing military aid until Ukraine is able to defeat Russia.” Acting on this position, Macron quietly worked in the spring in a fruitless and ill-advised attempt to enlist China as an ally to force Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table.
A crucial focus for Macron on the international front will be Africa. France’s position in the Sahel region of Africa has slipped—first with its withdrawal from Mali in 2022, and further after July’s coup in Niger. The coup has opened a rift between Paris and Washington on the preconditions for diplomatic engagement with the junta now in control. French policy in Africa is shifting, at least rhetorically, from a focus on security engagement to a “truly new relationship.” Macron’s new Africa strategy, unveiled in February, stresses partnerships, investment and humility. It is not off to a great start and there are mountains to overcome, above and beyond France’s historical baggage on the continent.
The centrality of “green energy” for Africa in French policy will ultimately fail to drastically improve living standards on the continent and could strengthen Chinese ties to many nations. One recent article noted the dearth of energy availability in Africa: “An American fridge uses more electricity than a typical African person.” While green energy is likely to serve as a chief component of Africa’s future energy mix, it is incapable of meeting the projected growth in demand alone.
However, Europe, the U.S. and Western-led institutions such as the World Bank are shunning investments in possible solutions, such as natural gas power plants in Africa (a hypocritical stance to say the least), leaving African nations to seek private financing or financing from China. Meanwhile, Chinese energy investments in Africa have grown exponentially, with little regard for transparency, environmental standards or sustainability. Even China’s investments in African green energy projects, industries that it dominates, only serve to tie Beijing closer to the continent.
Still, even putting aside the faulty foundations of France’s energy focus in Africa, concentrating less on the security aspect of relations with African nations will not make difficult problems go away. The French government’s policies toward Africa are inevitably linked to migration and security at home, which will pile political pressure on Macron to show results from his new approach sooner rather than later. A difficult challenge for Paris, the need to address these issues of domestic importance will keep France engaged in Africa. Italy, which for reasons of energy and migration is increasing engagement in North Africa, could be an ally in pushing the EU to make Africa a higher priority for involvement, if the rivalry between the nations can be overcome.
Another area to watch in Macron’s second term is France’s growing ties with India. While French economic engagement in the nation lags behind other European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to France on Bastille Day underscored the technological, defense and space cooperation between the two nations. Relations between France and India have room for considerable growth over the next four years, giving Macron an opening to amass support at home.
Macron’s ambitious agenda for a second term reflects the significant role he believes that France will continue to play in a world of great power competition. His emphasis on forging a separate French and European strategic path, apart from the U.S., has potential to lead to friction with Washington and could undermine convergence on key shared goals.
Despite facing obstacles to his domestic and foreign agenda, the powers of the French presidency give Macron significant latitude in the realm of foreign affairs and powerful tools to enact his agenda at home. The greatest challenges to his success will be political unpopularity at home, policy discord with the U.S., and overreach—trying to focus on too many priorities at once. Eventually, as the 2027 election draws nearer, Macron will need to focus at home on building up a political successor to ensure his legacy. Despite these challenges, the next four years of French policy are still Macron’s to command, for better or for worse.