Macron's waning star is bad news for France and the EU

Even before the “Gilet Jaune” (Yellow Vest) Movement started burning Paris, there were plenty of reasons to be critical of Emmanuel Macron’s 18-month imperial styled presidency.

However, before indulging in schadenfreude about Macron’s current political tribulations, it is well to recall that he was likely France’s last best hope for much needed market-based economic reform.  

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Now that his political star has waned, not only does Macron’s current diminished political authority at home cast a cloud over the French economic outlook. It also constitutes a major setback for the prospect of a much needed deepening of eurozone economic integration.

This is especially the case at a time when German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in a weakened position to provide European leadership. 

Before becoming overly critical of Macron, one might recall the worldwide relief at his election to the French in May 2017.

Reflecting the deepest public dissatisfaction with France’s dismal economic performance since the 2008-2009 Great Recession, in the first round of France’s presidential election, candidates from the extreme left and the extreme right of the political spectrum received a combined vote of close to 50 percent.

Macron’s convincing second-round victory over the National Front’s Marine Le Pen was widely hailed as having spared France from five years of populist rule and as having raised hopes of a period of much needed economic reform.

Sadly, President Macron’s inexperience and his imperial style of government have prevented him from gaining political momentum for his economic reform efforts.

Seemingly out of touch with public resentment, especially in rural areas, about economic unfairness, President Macron’s first efforts at reform included reductions in the wealth tax and other tax benefits for those in higher income brackets.  

As if intent on stirring up popular resentment further, he then secured approval for increased energy taxes for environmental reasons, the principal burden of which would fall on those in the lower income brackets and on those living in rural areas.

Clearly, the Macron government has been caught flat-footed by the severity of the public backlash against its economic policies. In response to the Yellow Jackets' violent protests, the government has beaten a hasty and embarrassing retreat on its proposed energy tax increases.  

It has done so by announcing a six-month freeze on such tax increases. It remains to be seen whether this capitulation will succeed in appeasing the Yellow Jackets or whether it will only encourage them to increase their demands for greater social justice. 

France’s recent social unrest comes at a most inopportune time for Macron. Before that unrest, his popularity was already plunging, with his standing in the polls at its lowest level for a French president at this stage of his presidency.

At the same time, both the French and European economic recoveries were showing every sign of stalling. In those circumstances, the last thing that an embattled Macron could afford was a further loss in his political authority at home. 

It would be a gross understatement to say that France’s political difficulties are also the last thing that a troubled European Union now needs:

  • The U.K. is positioning itself to leave the European Union early next year;
  • Italy appears to be on a dangerous collision course with Europe over its deficit-busting budget; and
  • Germany looks headed for a prolonged period of political uncertainty as Merkel seems to be well on her way to exiting the German and European political scene.  

A weakened President Macron would put a dent in any hope that he might fill Europe’s leadership vacuum at the very time that the European project desperately needs strong leadership.

Before the Trump administration yields to the temptation of taking delight in Europe’s troubles, it might want to reflect on the crucial role that Europe plays in curbing Russian adventurism abroad.

It might also want to reflect on the fact that we live in a very interconnected global economy and that any serious reversal in Europe’s economic fortunes is all too likely to reach our shores. For which reason one must hope that Emmanuel Macron soon regains his political footing. 

Desmond Lachman is a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was formerly a Deputy Director in the International Monetary Fund's Policy Development and Review Department and the Chief Emerging Market Economic Strategist at Salomon Smith Barney.