World News

A year in, Emmanuel Macron faces 'Le crunch' as honeymoon ends

Posted May 3, 2018 6:45 a.m. EDT

— It has been a year since Emmanuel Macron took that long, lonely walk through the shadows.

As the world watched on and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" rang out through the Paris night, Macron emerged in the light to meet the raucous crowd outside the Louvre.

For Macron, the revolutionary who had triumphed in the wake of the public's disillusionment with traditional politics, it was a rare moment of slow progress.

Macron, now 40, is not used to slow. This is the man who built a political movement, defeated traditional ruling parties who had run the country since 1958 and became President of France all within a year.

Rapid, somewhat radical change is what Macron wants and his successes in carrying out the domestic reforms that previous leaders had attempted in vain have given him a good start to his tenure.

His courting of US President Donald Trump has brought responsibility and pressure. For Macron, it's no longer just about France, it's about Europe, the Middle East and the US.

'Le bromance' with Trump

Macron's relationship with Trump has been a source of much attention across the world.

The "bromance" was more evident than ever during the handshaking, backslapping, hugging and, of course, dandruff picking during Macron's recent state visit.

Macron has assumed the role as Trump's translator at a time when German Chancellor Merkel is enduring domestic travails and Britain's embattled Prime Minister Theresa May is drowning in the minutiae of Brexit.

But Macron must now convince the world that the mutual admiration also lends itself to solving problems rather than just posing for the cameras.

Behind closed doors, the two men remain deadlocked on a number of issues, with the future of the Iran nuclear deal the most pressing.

Trump has set a deadline of May 12 for deciding whether the US will continue waiving economic sanctions on Tehran that were lifted under the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Macron, seemingly the only world leader able to hold Trump's attention, has so far failed to find common ground with the US President over the issue.

While Europe is a staunch advocate of the current deal, Trump labeled the agreement "insane" and "ridiculous," while standing beside Macron.

Macron spent the days following his trip to Washington phoning his allies to try and talk them around to the idea of a deal that would enable the original one to be kept.

Either the idea of a new deal would convince the US not to leave the original one, or it would provide a multilateral framework for ongoing regional discussions should the US withdraw.

Less pressing is Trump's stance on climate change and the US' withdrawal from the Paris accord.

During his recent speech to US Congress, Macron made plain his feelings about Trump's stance, urging the US President to reconsider.

The next 12 months will give an indication of whether Macron's position as the "Trump whisperer" will pay off.

Transforming Europe

Macron's success in forging a relationship with Trump remains in the European interest, as long as he can deliver.

But on a purely European level, with the union facing its biggest challenges in recent years, the pro-integration Macron has his work cut out for him.

Shortly after he was elected he told the Guardian: "Europe isn't a supermarket. Europe is a common destiny. It is weakened when it accepts its principles being rejected. The countries in Europe that don't respect the rules should have to face the political consequences. And that's not just an east-west debate."

So far, Europe is where he's failed to achieve success, despite giving four major speeches on the EU, including one that set out 80 policy proposals.

One of his main challenges is that his natural working partner, Merkel, endured a months-long struggle to form a coalition government. Her precarious position means that she is reticent to push any further integration or economic change when she lacks support at home.

It means that Macron's dream of a eurozone budget managed by an EU minister remains out of reach. In addition, his hope of transnational candidate lists for the 2019 European elections was dashed by the European Parliament itself.

Reforms at home

While Macron is struggling for reform in Europe, the same cannot be said for his work at home. Macron appears to have pleased those who wanted change and angered those who feared it.

Protests that greeted his attempts to modernize the state-owned SNCF railway are almost certain to continue in his second year.

And on Saturday, thousands of protesters gathered to mark Macron's one-year anniversary in Paris, marching against his decision to reform labor laws and increase police powers. Smaller protests took place across the country.

It's unlikely to deter Macron. His use of presidential decrees where parliamentary approval was in doubt -- or likely to slow things down -- has been controversial but effective.

Reforms that others had tried and failed to implement have now been carried out, but there is more to be done.

Macron has successfully made hiring and firing easier by easing labor regulations, introduced a flat 30% tax rate on capital income, slashed wealth tax and done away with the highest bracket of payroll tax for banks.

Business leaders point out that however welcome the reforms so far, the real problem of the tax burden on businesses has yet to be addressed.

Further reforms surrounding sexual harassment, housing, the legal system, unemployment benefits and tax evasion are also expected.

Macron's reform drive is far from popular and the French media appears reluctant to give him credit for changes he's brought to pass.

And yet while his popularity has dipped since last May's election, his rating after a year in office remains higher than past presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, though lower than Jacques Chirac and François Mitterand.

One of Macron's biggest problems may be the speed with which he is aiming to push through his fairly radical reforms. Year two may give him that time to carry out the revolution he so badly craves -- but he will not have it all his own way.