Geopolitics

Macron's Unpopularity And The Timeless Wisdom Of Machiavelli

After 17 months in power, Emmanuel Macron is touching the depths of unpopularity. He still has ways to bounce back, but should start by re-reading the author of 'The Prince.'

Protest in Strasbourg on Oct. 9
Protest in Strasbourg on Oct. 9
Elsa Freyssenet

PARIS — Even if you haven't read Machiavelli, you probably know the timeless saying proposed by the author of The Prince, that it is "much safer to be feared than loved." But it's worth remembering a less quoted and more nuanced passage in the book, a few pages later: "The best possible fortress is to not be hated by the people, because even if you hold the strongest fortresses, when the people hate you, they will not save you."

Amid last week's theatrical resignation of his Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, French President Emmanuel Macron may have remembered these two kernels of wisdom from the illustrious Florentine (whom he has read and written about extensively). If feared, the so-called "Jupiterian" president will be held in lower esteem by those political actors close to him. If simply beloved, he risks no longer garnering full respect. Right now, he is neither.

The critical zone is 25%

In this chaotic autumn, 17 months after his historic election, pollsters have sounded the alarm. The head of state's support in September dropped to between 25-33%, depending on the polling house. "The critical zone is 25%, because it's a bit of a trap," says Brice Teinturier, of Ipsos polling institute, noting that a president virtually has no way to bounce back from a level of unpopularity that low.

Macron is coping with two handicaps that are telling in terms of opinion: first, his level of popularity is close to his score of the first round of the presidential election (24%); second, his primary supporters are faltering. His political base, who voted for him in April 2017, still holds the majority, though less and less unanimously. What's even more worrisome is that the demographic profiles that brought him to power (executives, university graduates, optimists) are beginning to voice their disapproval.

The stories of the two previous presidents are not reassuring. The plummet of unpopularity happens fast: It occurred at the turn of the year 2007-2008 for Nicolas Sarkozy, and from the beginning of 2012 for François Hollande. In each case, voters returned to their initial opinions of year 1 for both presidents, and even deepened them. "One year to eighteen months is the end of the observation phase, the moment when many vague ideas about a president crystallize," says Emmanuel Rivière of Kanter Sofres, which also runs regular political surveys in France.

Disappointment begins with economic grievances, mixed with a general feeling of iniquity. Sarkozy was branded by supporting tax breaks for the wealthy, François Hollande alienated the middle classes by the tax hike of his first budget, and Emmanuel Macron inherited the label of "president of the rich" by ending a longstanding tax on wealth.

This label of "president of the rich," is widespread and deep-rooted, according to pollsters. Whether the label is fair or not, the perception is a contagious and powerful one, and the citizen grumbling opens the door for judgments on the overall style and nature of his leadership — as Macron is increasingly described as authoritarian and arrogant.

"The French want a leader, but not a monarch, someone who trains them without teaching them," says Teinturier.

An ally of the president says comparisons to his predecessor are off the mark: "Macron was elected by defeating all the laws of old politics, so we cannot compare him to former presidents."

The personal dimension has taken precedence.

Macron's greatest asset may be the sense of hope that got him elected on his first run for office of any kind. "The French really want something to happen," notes Emmanuel Rivière.

For Bernard Sananès of Elabe consulting: "It's going to be a lot more about economic results and purchasing power, (but) the personal dimension has taken precedence in criticizing the content of politics."

Another factor working in Macron's favor is the fragmentation of his opposition. A minister summarizes the advantage as follows: "At 30%, when you are two, you are a minority — four, you are first. And then, no personality embodies an alternative for voters who do not want extremes. Not yet."

A friend of the president warns, "It's a big mistake to think all is OK because there's no alternative leader. It would be to deny what Emmanuel Macron managed to do in the 2017 election, that is, pulling off a surprise." Remarking on the vulnerabilities of new principalities, the master Machiavelli put it another way: "A mutation always leaves behind stones of expectations for a new mutation."

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