Emmanuel Macron: has France’s liberal golden boy turned conservative?

Illustration credit: Katie Child

It has been almost four years since Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France, and in April 2022 the French people will once again go to the polls. His victory decimated the established political landscape and was hailed by many as a new era in French politics. Yet after several years in office, Europe’s dynamic golden boy seems to be veering increasingly towards the right.

In 2017 Macron won 66%of the vote in the second round of the presidential election, firmly defeating his rival, Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN). A former member of the Socialist Party, he founded his own political movement En Marche! (On the Move!) in early 2016 and left government. Barely a year later, he was elected president of the French Republic.

His meteoric rise can be attributed to his centrist policies, positive message and winning charisma displayed on the campaign trail. The ‘Macron’ brand was swiftly-built and powerful. Crucially, he represented a rejection of the extreme views expressed by Le Pen and the FN (since renamed the Rassemblement National (RN), or National Rally). Countering the far-right’s anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric, Macron gained the support of a lot of left-wing voters hoping to keep Le Pen out.

The “liberal” label

Despite his centrist image, Macron has always been hesitant to define himself using traditional political labels. Varying sources have called him “liberal”, “interventionist” and “progressive”. But he is more aloof in his own language choice. He has shown particular resistance to the “liberal” title, probably because in France this word has negative associations with ultra-capitalism.

The fact that he has always sought to maintain ambiguity in these areas is significant to the present debate: can someone be accused of abandoning his liberal roots if he never claimed them in the first place? Regardless of political terminology used, it is indisputable that back in 2017, France’s shiny new president (their youngest ever and the youngest leader since Napoleon) was widely regarded as a “youthful breath of fresh air”. There were expectations of a more liberal and progressive future – even if that wasn’t precisely what Macron had promised.

First moves

As soon as he entered office, Macron set about enacting ambitious plans for economic reform. Although a large proportion of the French electorate agreed with the overhaul in principle, concerns were raised over some of the plan’s more conservative-looking aspects. His 2017 labour reforms made it easier for businesses to hire and fire employees and gave larger firms more flexibility when negotiating working hours and pay, thus reducing the powers of trade unions. Macron’s government claimed that the changes aimed to reduce unemployment (which they ultimately did). Sceptics argued that the government was prioritising businesses over workers’ rights.

A large tax-cut for the wealthy was similarly unpopular. This reportedly reduced the taxes of France’s wealthiest investors and business-owners by up to 70%. Again, the president insisted that the move would boost investment in the economy and was therefore in the common interest. But many were reminded of Macron’s previous career as a banker, with the front page of the left-wing newspaper Libération showing his image beside the headline “Héros des Riches” (Hero of the Rich).

These initial moves, although controversial, were repeatedly justified by Macron and his government as beneficial in the long-term. The methods used were criticised for being conservative, but arguably the long-term goal was still compatible with the president’s centrist image.

Fuel taxes cause flare-ups

Even his handling of the Gilets jaunes (Yellow vests) movement did not confirm Macron’s political stance one way or the other. Somewhat ironically, this particular challenge was not prompted by one of his reforms. It was sparked by a routine rise in eco-taxes on fuel stipulated in the 2019 budget – the legacy of a previous administration. The rise in fuel prices (particularly diesel) caused anger among much of the French population, who felt that the middle and working classes were being forced to pay the price for the millionaires’ tax cuts (discussed above). The subsequent protests across the country went on for months, and the movement continues to be occasionally revived.

Macron attempted to appease protestors by pausing the fuel tax rise and offering a 10 billion euro tax-cut for lower-income households in the 2020 budget. These moves were met with mixed reactions: some believed Macron had finally acknowledged the struggle of ordinary citizens; but others remained unconvinced, still of the opinion that the president was out of touch with the French people. The enigma presented by his political leanings persisted.

Veering rightwards: a pandemic and a cabinet reshuffle

The president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is no less controversial. His approval ratings picked up slightly at the start of the crisis and have remained relatively constant throughout. But recently he has come increasingly under fire for the slow vaccine rollout and his controversial decision to delay imposing a third national lockdown, despite rapidly rising infection rates across France. He has been forced to put his ambitious economic reforms on hold, instead announcing large state aid packages to support the car and aerospace industries.

However, there are signs that Macron is looking to use the crisis as a ‘reset’ in his presidential term. A cabinet reshuffle in July 2020 saw Edouard Philippe (prime minister during the first three years of Macron’s term) replaced by Jean Castex. Neither are particularly extreme figures: both are centre-right. But the same cabinet reshuffle saw Gérald Darmanin appointed Minister of the Interior. Outspoken and a hard-line conservative, Darmanin shocked even Le Pen during a televised debate in February 2021 when he accused her of taking a “soft” stance on secularism and Islamism – both issues on which many voters consider the RN to be too extreme. His addition, among other figures, has shifted the cabinet further towards the right.

Soon after appointing Castex as prime minister, Macron tweeted that he was aiming to take a “new path” in the aftermath of the pandemic, focusing on “reviving the economy, continuing to overhaul social and environmental protections, re-establishing a fair republican order and defending European sovereignty”.

Two of his recent policies have illustrated this shift in attitude. The “global security law” aimed to impose limits on the public’s rights to film police officers. It was criticised for its potential threat to freedom of expression and prompted waves of protests across France. The law to combat “separatism” – with particular focus on “Islamist separatism” – includes closer regulations regarding home schooling (which has allegedly been linked to radicalisation) and crackdowns on practices such as polygamy and virginity certificates.

Both proposed laws have received extensive criticism both within France and internationally. The “separatism law” has been charged with encouraging discrimination against the country’s Muslim community, who account for almost 9% of the total population. These accusations are not unlike those levelled against the RN and other far-right French figures in the past.

The sliding scale: is the French electorate becoming more conservative?

If Macron’s shift to the right seems unexpected, it is perhaps partially explained by the changing views of the French electorate. Data suggests that the French population as a whole has become more right-wing over the past few years. Le Pen is gaining steadily on Macron, with some polls suggesting that she might win a greater percentage of the vote in the first round of the 2022 election. The president’s decision to move rightwards in the last two years of his term therefore seems to be a logical one, as he moves to attract those who might otherwise be tempted to vote for the RN.

However, his growing reputation for conservatism has alienated many of his left-wing supporters. Since 2016, 43 députés (the equivalent of British MPs) have left Macron’s party La République en Marche (LREM, formerly En Marche!). Some of these departures were prompted by a sense of disillusionment and a desire to return to the movement’s “original values”.

A large number of left-leaning ordinary voters have also abandoned the Macron cause, according to a polling analyst at Ifpop. But given the fragmented state of the French left at the moment, this is unlikely to pose a serious threat to his upcoming election campaign.

Although he has yet to announce his candidacy, it is highly likely that 2022 will see a re-run of the 2017 face-off between Macron and Le Pen. This time, the current president will not have the shiny, golden-boy persona that was such a valuable asset to him four years ago. Instead, he must adapt to the evolving political environment – even if that means shattering the liberal, centrist halo that many voters awarded him first time around, and replacing it with a more conservative image.

It seems that the man who tore up the political rulebook in 2017 is now realising that, sometimes, you need to play the game to have a chance at winning it again.