Journal De Bruxelles - Macron: an abrasive reformer in turbulent times

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Macron: an abrasive reformer in turbulent times
Macron: an abrasive reformer in turbulent times

Macron: an abrasive reformer in turbulent times

A short time after becoming France's youngest ever president in 2017, Emmanuel Macron made a boast about his temperament that made clear he was expecting trouble while in office

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"I’m not made to lead in calm weather," he told author Emmanuel Carriere during a tour of the hurricane-hit French Caribbean island of Saint Martin in 2017. "My predecessor was, but I’m made for storms."

The comment, made as he observed devastated homes, proved prophetic.

Over his five years, some storms were expected, some were of his own making, while others barrelled over the horizon unannounced.

On Thursday, Macron threw his hat in the ring for what could be another stormy term as president. The first round of the presidential vote will take place on April 10.

After Macron's first year in office, marked by major tax and labour market reforms, he faced some of the most violent anti-government demonstrations since the 1960s when protesters in florescent yellow safety jackets began a nationwide revolt against his policies.

From the beginning of 2020, he battled a once-in-a-century global pandemic as Covid-19 spread from China, rendering almost all other government business irrelevant and putting paid to his last reform plans.

"We are at a time in the history of humanity when we have rarely seen such an accumulation of short-term crises," he told the Groupe d'Etudes Geopolitique, a think-tank, in late 2020.

Now, having weathered Donald Trump's norm-shredding American presidency, he faces war in Europe as Russian President Vladimir Putin's troops invade Ukraine, overshadowing France's election next month.

Throughout all these crises, the man dubbed "The Chameleon President" by Le Monde newspaper, who had never been elected to any position before winning the presidency, was refining a governing style that has often confounded the French.

Still only 44, he is seen widely as energetic and bold, but also abrasive and sometimes authoritarian.

"I think I arrived in power with a sort of vitality, which I hope I still have, with a desire to shake things up," he told TF1 television in an interview in December.

- 'President of the rich'? -

That desire, he now concedes, has sometimes been the source of his errors, particularly off-the-cuff comments made to members of the public that have forged his reputation for arrogance and insensitivity.

He once told an unemployed gardener that he could "cross the road and get you a job" and accused opponents of his labour market reforms of being "slackers".

"I think that with some of my comments I hurt people," Macron continued during his interview with TF1. "And I think you can get things done without hurting people."

Nicolas Domenach, co-author of a recent book titled "Macron: Why so much hatred?", said these remarks, coupled with Macron's decision to make tax cuts for the wealthy one of his first priorities, were the fuel for the "Yellow Vest" protests in 2018.

"Not only did we have a 'president of the rich', but a president of contempt and arrogance. Everyone we spoke to mentioned it," said the veteran journalist and commentator. "It cut through. It was like he was branded with it, with hot iron."

The old instinct returned in early January when Macron told a group of voters that he really wanted to "piss off" people who were refusing vaccinations against Covid-19, sparking another round of outrage.

- Reforms -

Despite stirring such strong feelings in opponents, Macron has always retained a loyal core support, mainly from urban professionals.

They admire his pro-business policies to encourage entrepreneurship, as well as what is widely seen as an uncommon intellect and grasp of policy detail.

Partly thanks to his pro-business labour market reforms and vast government spending to protect the economy from the effects of the global pandemic, unemployment is at its lowest level in nearly 10 years.

"People are also proud when they see him overseas. He represents France well," explained Domenach.

Macron, a former investment banker, believes in "diplomacy of audacity" and he has thrown himself into the search for solutions to crises ranging from Iran's disputed nuclear programme, Libya's civil war, to latterly the Russian-Ukraine conflict.

However his repeated mediation efforts have rarely borne fruit -- including his most recent attempts to convince Putin not to invade -- but the Ukraine crisis has proved a boon for his dream of a stronger, more united European Union.

"What's happened, in this acceleration of history in just a few hours, is a revolution.. a European power revolution" French Europe Minister Clement Beaune, a close aide of the president, exalted on February 28.

- Private life -

Macron's unusual personal life remains a source of fascination in France, though his marriage is no longer a subject of open speculation, as it was before the 2017 election which forced him to make a public denial that he was gay.

He is married to former teacher Brigitte, whom he met while a pupil at a private school in their hometown of Amiens in northeast France.

In her forties and with three children, Brigitte divorced her husband and began a relationship with Macron while he was in his late teens.

Known to have reluctantly embraced her husband's political ambitions, she once said she wanted to avoid being like "a vase of flowers" in the background at official functions but has kept a relatively low profile as first lady.

"I've learned not to speak openly to anyone, anywhere and anyhow which is a colossal effort for me because I'm very talkative," she told the Figaro newspaper recently.

If Macron fails with his bid for a second term -- or succeeds and serves a second term until 2027, when he will be only aged 49 -- his mother has an idea of what his future might hold.

"I'm convinced he'll launch himself as a writer, that he'll take another path. He's the not the sort of person to do the international conference circuit," she told the writer Gael Tchakaloff for her book about the Macron couple.

S.Vandenberghe--JdB