November 15, 2017 05:11 GMT by theguardian.com

Macron finds elitist tag hard to shake, but he has the upper hand

Macron finds elitist tag hard to shake, but he has the upper hand

Much of France is sceptical, but a divided opposition makes the president’s aim of disrupting traditional politics easier

Sipping coffee at dawn near the French parliament, Adrien Taquet pondered his friend Emmanuel Macron’s first six months as president. Just as the centrist, pro-business French leader prefers the word “transformation” to the loaded word “reform” – which has always sparked political rows in France – Taquet said the pace of “structural change” in France was so “staggering”, it might seem hard to follow. “As soon as we finish one thing, there are already another two things on the table,” he smiled.

He reeled off three major legislative changes: a law to clean up politics including banning MPs from hiring family members, flagship reforms to loosen France’s complex labour code, making it easier to hire and fire – the biggest change in employment law in 50 years – and controversial anti-terror legislation that allowed Macron to end France’s two-year state of emergency by writing hardline special policing powers into law.

But Taquet, 40, an advertising executive who entered parliament as one of Macron’s novice MPs this summer, was also well-placed to look at the growing challenge of explaining “Macronism” to a French public still worried about France’s decades of mass unemployment, its economic outlook and terrorist threat, and sceptical about exactly who will benefit from Macron’s tax changes and pro-business overhaul.

Adrien Taquet
Adrien Taquet came up with the name of Macon’s movement, En Marche. Photograph: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

Taquet was part of a very small group around Macron at the very start of his preparations to blast apart the old political order, smash the old left and right divisions and win the election. He personally came up with the name for Macron’s “neither left nor right” political movement “En Marche” (On the move). “It had to be disruptive, not like any conventional party name,” he said, just as the visual imagery had to be different: a handwritten logo that was Macron’s own writing, with no specific colour, unlike the rigid colours of the old party system.

Now, like all the communications brains that Macron has surrounded himself with, Taquet was carefully weighing up how to challenge the main image glitch that has stuck to Macron’s frenetic first six months in power: that he is “president of the rich”, a leader styled by his critics as hailing from the elite, not understanding everyday life and serving primarily only the higher echelons of society. Although Macron is widely hailed for his presence on the international stage, the label has clouded his standing in the polls since he slashed France’s wealth tax and turned it into a property tax, while at the same time trimming housing benefits that would affect the poorest. It was exacerbated by a personal style seen as haughty.

“The label ‘president of the rich’ is old politics, an old-fashioned form of posturing, just like the right-left faultline which I think is outmoded,” Taquet argued. “We’re freeing up a number of breaks that limited economic activity, but we’re not dogmatic and we’re attacking the inequalities that are unbearable in our country.” He argued that benefits for poor pensioners as well as those with disabilities were being overhauled.

But if Macron was elected in a France that was socially divided, those faultlines remain. After his poll scores fell over the summer, his popularity rating has stabilised at around 40% – seen by analysts as workable, given that it is far higher than the 24% who chose him in the first round of the presidential race. Yet polls show his supporters laud his dynamism, while his detractors judge him arrogant and cut off from the people.

Macron’s immediate challenge is explaining his project to the electorate. France’s youngest modern leader has presented himself as attempting the biggest overhaul of the French social model and welfare system in modern France. The idea is to turn towards a Nordic style form of “flexi-security” in which the labour market is loosened and the focus is on changing from a rigid labour code to a society of individuals moving between jobs. Some observers on the right feel his loosening of labour laws could have gone even further, while on the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon warned he was tearing down the fabric of French society. But Macron is now pushing on to the next stage of his legislative plan: overhauling the country’s failing training and apprenticeship schemes, then nationalising and overhauling the unemployment benefits system, potentially opening it up to the self-employed.

The promise is greater support for workers through training and a revamped welfare system, pointing to the Nordic model of a flexible labour market underpinned by different social protections. “What we’re building is a flexi-security,” said an Élysée official. “We don’t claim to have invented it, other countries did it before us.”

François Miquet-Marty, head of Viavoice pollsters, said: “He’s the French president who is going the furthest in terms of transgression against the French model since the start of the Fifth Republic ... He was elected on a vote to reject the old political class and at the same he’s bringing a project that doesn’t suit everyone. The French model is built on a logic of redistribution from richer to poorer, either via tax or social security. With Macron we’re not on that level anymore, we’re in a universe that is about accompanying everyone’s individual journey. It’s a profound break with the French model and we see that there’s a strong resistance because people don’t understand it.”

A Viavoice poll for Libération this week showed that when French people were asked whether they felt they would benefit from the current situation on taxes, social charges or social benefits, 65% felt they would lose out.

Miquet-Marty said that in that context, “Macron has to be careful of the ‘president of the rich’ tag that is easy to stick and hard to shake off.”

Yet politically speaking, Macron has room to do what he likes. His political movement dominates parliament, the economic situation is looking up, there are no elections until the European parliament vote of 2019 and opposition to him is split. Marine Le Pen’s far right Front National is bruised and divided and the hard left’s Mélenchon conceded recently that after labour reforms passed quickly with no fall-out from street protests, Macron “for now has the upper hand”. Mélenchon is now focusing on youth issues for a new offensive against Macron, targeting university reforms and changes to admissions criteria.

But Macron, who turns 40 next month, still faces key difficult issues to come – pension reform and a move to shrink parliament is looking complex to deliver. His plans to reform a more integrated European Union remain to be negotiated.

Jérôme Fourquet, a political scientist from Ifop pollsters, said Macron’s first six months saw him continue his quest to destroy the old political class. First the Socialist party caved in, now Macron is targeting the divided rightwing Les Républicains by picking key figures from the party as his prime minister, economy and budget ministers and winning over rightwing voters.

Fourquet said Macron was now gaining support from the right’s entrepreneurs and moneyed retirees while holding onto his historic centre-left voters. “If Macron manages to secure a place as the only representative for a ‘France that is doing well’, it’s a key political base.”

The challenge for a leader who claims to encompass both right and left is managing to convince those who feel they are losing out.

“For now, there’s a big doubt, a big part of the population that don’t believe Macron,” Fourquet said. “The question is how he manages to speak directly to that France.”

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