France’s ‘President Jupiter’ fires orders from the sky

Zaid M. Belbagi
Zaid M. Belbagi

Zaid M. Belbagi

By : Zaid M. Belbagi

:: French presidents at the height of their powers are often labeled as “L’hyperprésident,” but Emmanuel Macron has gone a step further, being referred to by aides and commentators alike as “Jupiter.” Having overthrown France’s two main political parties, the once approachable campaign candidate now fires orders from the Elysée Palace in a fashion not dissimilar to the thunderbolts of the mythological Roman deity of the sky.

The president’s deliberately icy and firm new demeanor is understood to be a strategy of his closest advisers. The “Jupiterian” concept of power seems to have been developed toward the end of the campaign to illustrate Macron’s vision for a strong presidency. Following Hollande’s lowest approval ratings for any French head of state, Macron is tied to the idea of reinstating presidential power and prestige through a selective aloofness that puts him above political intrigue and gossip.

The theory essentially dictates that the president delegates the daily management of government to the Cabinet, thereby leaving the job of ruling to him. The plan seems to be working, with commentators focusing on Macron’s more serious manner and his curt addresses to the public in a fashion that has been likened to that other dispenser of mystical power, President Charles de Gaulle.

Irrespective of the distance that the presidential staff have sought to create between the Elysée and the realities of daily politicking, Macron will have to get involved in the affairs of government. Throughout the history of the Fifth Republic, presidents have tended to work through their prime ministers — however following the promise to shake up France and implement large-scale reforms, the electorate expect energetic leadership from their president.

Cracks have begun to show, with Macron being faced with the very real reality of having alienated groups on both the left and right of the spectrum. The country’s head of the armed forces, Gen. Pierre de Villiers, recently stepped down following a spat with Macron, who viewed his Facebook posts on defense spending unfavorably. The dismissal of the general, some 30 years the president’s senior, was viewed as authoritarian and impulsive by the French press. Voters on the left viewed their supposedly anti-establishment president with disdain as he rolled out the red carpet for Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, while insisting upon salary freezes for government employees and cuts to welfare.

Macron is tied to the idea of reinstating presidential power and prestige through a selective aloofness that puts him above political intrigue and gossip.

Zaid M. Belbagi

In one month the president’s approval rating dropped 10 points in one poll, and eight in another. Not since the opening months of President Jacques Chirac’s first presidency have the polls fallen so fast. As he begins to overhaul France’s fossilized labor law and trade unions in the autumn, the president can expect a tough time in the ratings. In a country where state spending accounts for almost 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) the young man supposedly sent by providence must be careful not to alienate constituencies whose income and employment are closely attached to the state apparatus.

The media have realized the presidential changes all to well. The candidate who had once loved a good chat has become markedly less media friendly. A limited group of aides control access to the president and set-piece addresses to the press have replaced the online chats of the previous months. Visiting a high school near Limoges, the president reprimanded reporters chasing soundbites, saying that “when I travel on a topic of my choosing, I speak of the topic of my choosing, I won’t answer any newsy questions.”

The president, described as increasingly imperious, has realized that connecting with the public en masse will be more challenging then expected. A product of France’s elite schools, Macron was hitherto unelected and has shown himself to be more comfortable within establishment institutions than visiting the country’s poorer regions. At a recent visit to an auto-parts factory, the president was booed by workers — a far cry from the candidate who had promised to restore hope to France’s stressed millions.

Macron’s En Marche coupled with centrist allies occupy 350 seats in the National Assembly, giving them a substantial majority. How they will perform in the overhaul of France’s labor code will be interesting and shed light as to whether Macron’s movement has the staying power to become an entrenched political force. Opposition figures have viewed the president’s drop in the polls with glee whilst mocking the inexperience of the private-sector novices who now serve in Parliament as Macron’s agents of change. As to whether their political naiveté emboldens them to break with the past or indeed hampers their ability to govern will be a key question in the months ahead.

For the millennials that voted for Macron in droves, economic change is a necessity. En Marche made huge promises to the electorate, who will not be won over with small measures. Seasoned entrepreneur Hicham El Maaroufi Elidrissi captured this sentiment perfectly, saying that “the country can’t be run on good intentions, the government needs to step up and begin implementing the change and major policy shifts that made Macron’s movement popular.”

:: Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

:: Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.

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