Emmanuel Macron was touted as a refreshing centrist after defeating Marie Le Pen in the 2017 election. But his reception by the French public has been on a downward slope since then with 60 percent of the French public currently unhappy with Macron’s leadership. As the campaigning for the 2022 election ramps up, the question becomes whether Macron can win the French vote again, and, if not, what will the future look like for France and the EU?
In the beginning, there were Yellow Vests
Macron, a former investment banker, ran on a pro-EU platform with the goal of fostering a more globally-competitive, carbon-neutral France. As part of this strategy, Macron announced an increase in gas tax. Macron’s gas tax was seen as regressive by working-class French citizens who are already struggling financially. These moves were unpopular with the French public, resulting in the Yellow Vest movement. The Movement started in October 2018 and continued for months. While some of the protests turned violent, the vast majority of the French public approved of the movement. One riot that resulted from the Yellow Vest movement is estimated to have caused $3.4 million in damages to the city of Paris.
During the Yellow Vest Movement, rail and airport workers went on strike in solidarity, a move also supported by the majority of the French public. Macron responded to the movement by releasing a new proposal to increase minimum wage, but many found the solution to be lacking; mainly the increase would only aid those who earn minimum wage, a minority, and would not address the issues some earners have with Macron’s retirement changes.
Terrorism and Fear
Public opinion of Macron has also been shaped by his response to several terrorist attacks while in office. France has been traumatized by some thirty-six Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks in the last eight-years in which two killed more than 200 people. During Macron’s presidency, some attacks have garnered worldwide attention, including beheading of a French school teacher, Mr. Samuel Paty, who had been using the Charlie Hebdo caricature of the Prophet Muhammad in his course instruction.
In response to the attacks, Macron continued to emphatically defend Hebdo’s caricatures. Macron has also pushed a law, which went to the Senate as of February 2021, which, in part, will require that strict religious neutrality extend beyond civil servants to private contractors for public services, such as bus drivers. All of this strict secularism is part of one of France’s core beliefs, laïcité.
Laïcité, loosely translated as strict secularism, has been an important part of modern France. Laïcité includes the right to say blasphemous things about religion, which was part of how France shed its monarchy and political ties to the Catholic Church. While laïcité may be important to France, there are still many citizens who practice religion. Muslims specifically remain a minority in France and Europe in general, but the percentage of Muslims in France is higher than the European average; nearly 6 million Muslims reside in France as of 2016, which is 8.8 percent of the population compared to the European average of 5 percent.
Macron presents himself as a staunch supporter of laïcité. Macron inherited a ban on full-face coverings from his predecessor, Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which has been declared a human right’s violation by the UN as of 2018; Macron has not taken steps to lift the ban. Regarding the terrorist attacks specifically, Macron has continued to defend the Hebdo caricatures and other similar instances as important components of laïcité. In response, Muslim nations including Kuwait and Qatar have boycotted French goods. Macron has maintained his stance though, going as far as suggested that Islam was in need of an “Enlightenment”, while Dairmanin, his interior minister, suggested that there may be a civil war.
Despite these actions, some French find that Macron is too lax when it comes to laïcité. Macron allowed a student to testify during an inquiry while wearing a hijab, causing members of his own party to walk out. Macron also defended a mother who wore a hijab during a school field trip, even when his political rival Marine Le Pen spoke out against the mother’s attire. These actions may have done little to appease the global community, but enough to shift some political power into the hands of Le Pen as the election looms.
The Future of France, the Future of the EU
The outcome of this coming election will set the stage for environmental, police, and other reforms which may influence the overall state of the EU. With the next election only a year away, Macron is still facing more political unrest. Police unions have called for protests in Paris, protests which have been joined by Interior Minister Dairmanin, a supporter of Macron. However, the issue of police protection remains a right-wing idea on Marine Le Pen’s side of the aisle, placing Macron in an awkward position. Fabien Roussel, the leader of the Communist Party, launched his presidential campaign with an emphasis on crime.
Far-right politician Le Pen will be running in the 2022 election; she feels her victory is “entirely plausible.” Le Pen would take an even stronger position against “Islamism” and against crime, despite the fact that crime is going down in France. Le Pen also takes a harsh stance against Islam as a whole, citing especially national security. Yet, in the last year, the recent Islamist extremeist attacks had no clear links to any terrorist groups, begging the question whether the current state of affairs is truly a result of well-organized terrorist groups or just a fallout of colonialism and fear of multiculturalism. The language of some French politicians point to the latter. And even Macron has conceded that France has wounds from colonialism that have yet to heal.
Author Biography: Danielle Barnes-Smith is a Deputy Moderator-in-Chief for the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) at The George Washington University Law School. She is a law degree candidate at The George Washington Law School and has a Master in Public Administration from the University of Montana.