Macron seeks direction

(File photo: AFP)
A man of perpetual motion, President Emmanuel Macron of France finds himself in an uneasy state of drift. Five months into his second and final five-year term, he wants to forge his legacy but seems unsure which way to move. He promised “a new era” when re-elected in April, but new limits on his power and cascading crises have nudged the transformation off the agenda.اضافة اعلان

Macron, whose every instinct is to play offense, has been pushed into a defensive crouch. His government, at enormous cost, has capped gas and electricity price increases that would otherwise hit 120 percent by next year. It has requisitioned refinery workers in an attempt to break a crippling strike that has led to mile-long lines at gas stations.

Deprived of the absolute parliamentary majority he had in his first term, seeking new ways to connect with a restive nation, buffeted by Russia’s war in Ukraine and threats from one leftist leader to outdo the 1789 revolution, Macron seems hesitant. But despite everything, he has lost none of his ambition to remake the world.

At 44, he nurses a sweeping agenda: to build a new France at the heart of a strong and autonomous Europe, emancipated from the US, delivered from fossil fuels, freed from the threat of a far-right takeover — a nation that punches above its weight and controls its 21st-century fate.

“I am obsessed with one thing,” Macron said this month in a conversation with a handful of journalists.

“I believe our duty toward our children is to leave them with the same freedom of choice as us. That is governing well. If your choices are limited tomorrow by those you make today, you have failed.”

Yet, external and internal threats to that freedom grow. The would-be leader of Europe faces a continent reconfigured. Its center of gravity has shifted eastward; it lives in the shadow of the threat, however remote, of nuclear war.

“We do not want a World War,” Macron wrote last week on Twitter after an hour-long TV interview in which he insisted that “whenever it’s necessary, I will speak to Vladimir Putin”, referring to the Russian president.

At home, the French universalist model, based on the idea that society would offer equal opportunity and welfare protection to all citizens, irrespective of ethnicity or religion, has been challenged by social fracture, the pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis. Macron has spoken of an “age of great upheaval”.

“He is weaker, but I do not believe his ambition is smaller,” said Alain Duhamel, an author and political commentator.

“He still thinks he is the only one in France to have bold, strategic ideas.”

But is the country amenable to change?

“France has 150 shades of discontent,” Duhamel said.

“The question is whether pessimist melancholy or volcanic anger prevails.”

The “rentrée”, as the September return to work from summer vacation is called, has been calmer than predicted. But the strike that has paralyzed five of France’s active fuel refineries and depots has abruptly crystallized national unease.
Every other day, it seems, Macron is on the phone with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine promising French support against Russia while warning against escalation.
The brew is potent: gasoline shortages affecting more than 60 percent of French families, rising inflation, soaring oil company profits and struggling households. It was a proposed hike in diesel fuel taxes that ignited the Yellow Vest uprising in 2018. The specter of those protests still hovers. Macron has no interest in a rerun.

Workers at French oil giant TotalEnergies, incensed by a 52 percent jump in the compensation of the company’s CEO, have demanded a 10 percent raise to take account of inflation and redistribute Total’s windfall profits.

Macron’s opposition has seized on the protests.

“I hope this is the spark that begins a general strike,” Sandrine Rousseau, a leading Green Party member of parliament, told Franceinfo radio.

One has been called for Tuesday.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist leader who dreams of somehow unseating Macron, led tens of thousands of people on a march Sunday “against the high cost of living”. He had urged protesters to be inspired by the women who, furious over the soaring cost of bread, marched on Versailles in October 1789, ushering in the revolution.

Some of the vitriol is to be expected. Second terms for French presidents are rare — Macron’s is the first in two decades — and generally unhappy. Jacques Chirac became known as the “idle king”, and François Mitterrand as the “declining monarch”.

Macron is desperate to avoid a similar fate. His nightmare is that he will be succeeded by the nationalist, anti-immigrant Marine Le Pen, rather as President Barack Obama was succeeded by Donald Trump. Her party, the National Rally, holds 89 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly.

“If Le Pen followed him, that would spell failure,” said Philippe Labro, an author and commentator.

Just what will define success is another matter.

“There is no clear line,” said Chloé Morin, a political scientist.

“This second term is not yet decipherable. Macron has not found the way in which he wants to be remembered.”

The back-and-forth that earned him the sobriquet of the “at the same time” president now extends to his attire: a black turtleneck one day, to evoke the “new sobriety” of keeping warm with less heating, and his classic dark blue suit and tie the next.

Every other day, it seems, Macron is on the phone with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine promising French support against Russia while warning against escalation. He flew directly last month from New York, where he had warned the UN of the choice between “war and peace”, to Saint-Nazaire on the French Atlantic coast, where he lauded marine wind turbines.

“The challenge before my compatriots and all Europeans is that they be convinced that democracy, debate, European thought and solidarity will overcome the crisis and constitute our future.”

Perhaps those words will one day define Macron’s legacy: to have held the line for a certain European idea threatened by Putin’s Russia and derided for four years in Trump’s America.

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