Macron's Opponents Are Doing His Work for Him

The French president doesn't need to be popular or productive to remain in control.

The centrist gets to govern by default.

Photographer: Hristo Rusev/NurPhoto, via Getty Images

France’s new leader won stunning support this spring and squandered it with stunning speed soon after. But he has what Napoleon said a general needs most: luck.

President Emmanuel Macron has not yet begun serious reform of France’s sclerotic economy, such as a rewrite of France’s overweight labor regulations, which is sure to prompt protests. But in the meantime he has committed several unforced errors, such as a housing benefits cut that his own government now admits was a mistake (but still intends to carry out) and a public spat with his respected military chief, leading to the latter’s unprecedented resignation. Macron’s support has weakened dramatically, with a slide in the polls to only 36 percent having a favorable opinion.

So why is he lucky? Because his divided opposition has been unable to capitalize on his missteps. There is no viable alternative to Macron’s government, and no one is offering the French people a better path.

France’s Socialist Party, which received an abysmal 5 percent in the presidential poll and was creamed in the legislative elections, is barely in the news, beset by rumors that it is so debt-laden that it might have to sell its historic headquarters in Paris’s posh 7th district.

La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”), the outfit of left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who seeks to paint Macron as a hopeless reactionary and himself as the only left-of-center alternative, has had relative success winning a number of seats in Parliament, but it seems the French have tired of that party’s one-track album. Decrying every single thing the government does in the name of the same ideology can get tiresome. The party was also hurt by its defense of the Venezuelan regime even as that country slides further into deprivation, chaos and authoritarianism. But never count out Mélenchon, one of the most skilled communicators of his generation. He is biding his time until the fall protests against Macron’s plans, when he is sure to be in front of every microphone and every camera in the country.

The more plausible alternatives to Macron are to be found on the right, with the conservative Republican Party and the far-right National Front. The problem is that these parties are too preoccupied with civil war to mount much of a challenge to Macron’s administration.

The Republican Party is in a full-blown identity crisis, because Macron straddles the center ground of French politics. Should the party work constructively with Macron to try to retain the center ground, at the risk of having its message diluted and empowering the National Front? Or should it tack right, providing a forceful alternative but giving up at least some of the center? Each of these options has a leading figure -- François Baroin and Laurent Wauquiez -- and each utterly lacks charisma. They are old hands who set no one’s heart ablaze at a time when Macron has rejuvenated French politics and promoted new faces.

Over at the National Front, the internal fight is over the deputy, Florian Philippot, who is credited with that party’s attempt to scramble French politics by remaining hard-right on social issues like immigration but tacking left on economic issues. The goal was to unite the French working class, but so far the effect has been an underwhelming performance in the presidential election. The traditionalists within the party want to ally with the right rather than the left. They are too focused on fighting their own party’s deputy to make much progress against Macron.

While Macron may already be yesterday’s news to the French, he remains in control of French politics thanks to that fluke of history: a disorganized opposition unable to put forward either a personality or an alternative agenda.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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