French president Emmanuel Macron's honeymoon comes to a halt

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) and his wife Brigitte Macron at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7, 2017.
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) and his wife Brigitte Macron at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (NYTIMES) - President Emmanuel Macron, who upended France's political establishment with his election in May, is breaking ground again, but in an unwelcome way: a rapid and nearly unequalled drop in the polls.

The young president lost 10 points in one month in one poll, 8 in another and 7 in a third. Not since the first months of Jacques Chirac in the mid-1990s has any president fallen so far so fast.

Macron, at the head of a fledgling political movement, marked a victory that was always as tenuous as it was momentous. A former investment banker, he bested France's traditional political parties and fashioned himself as something of a centrist, giving both left and right reason to support him, but also ample room to regard him with suspicion.

Now, it appears that France's initial romance with the untested outsider to politics may be quickly fading.

The "Jupiterian president," as aides fondly describe him, has alienated left-leaning voters with his promise to loosen France's labour code and trim the country's generous social safety net. He angered civil servants with his vow to freeze their salaries. And he upset voters on the right with his fight with the head of the country's armed forces, General Pierre de Villiers, who resigned as a result.

Macron's glittering reception of the US and Russian presidents, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, both disliked in France, especially on the left, did not help.

Starting from a fragile electoral base - he won 24 per cent in the first round of voting in April, and defeated an unelectable far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, in the second - Macron's position can now be considered delicate, in the view of pollsters and analysts.

"We've got a conjunction of discontent," said Jerome Fourquet of IFOP, one of France's leading pollsters, who conducted one of the first polls to show Macron's tumble.

"The drop is serious. It's a warning signal," Fourquet said in an interview. "The causes of this discontent are deep. It is touching on some important elements in Macron's agenda," he added, pointing out that Macron had angered all sides of the political spectrum.

Nobody denies that Macron, 39, already has a roster of accomplishments, even before the coming summer break.

Parliament - in his hands and largely beholden to him - has given him the go-ahead to proceed with an overhaul of France's stultifying labour code, which Macron and many economists say is necessary to break high unemployment.

The representatives, elected on his ticket, have passed a significant ethics law that bars deputies from employing family members and regulates parliamentary expense accounts. And he has set in motion a tough new anti-terrorism law, widely criticised by civil libertarians.

While opposition politicians have pounced gleefully on the shrinking poll numbers, much of the drop may simply have been waiting to happen.

Macron avoided crowd-pleasing promises during his campaign, with one significant exception, a cut in the housing tax. He did not promise lavish spending initiatives or to hire thousands of new civil servants, like several of his opponents.

"The problem with a very presidentialised system is that the president takes everything on his shoulders, and he pays the price," said Gérard Grunberg, an emeritus political scientist at Sciences Po, a university in Paris.

"Discontent fixes itself very quickly on the president," Grunberg added. "It's even more for Macron because he's had this image of being the providential man. So that at the first disappointment, it all shrinks very quickly." His vow to pare down the French state was bound to anger significant constituencies in a country where state spending is 56 per cent of gross domestic product, the highest among the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's advanced economies.

Then the discovery after his election of a US$9.5 billion (S$12.9 billion) budget shortfall left by his predecessor, combined with Macron's vow to make the deficit conform to European Union norms at 3 per cent of gross domestic product, led inevitably to promises of further cuts, including US$1 billion in military spending.

But some of the wounds are self-inflicted. Previous vulnerabilities are coming to the fore. A product of France's elite schools, the Olympian Macron doesn't have the common touch, was never previously elected to anything, and since his election has preferred high-tech salons to trips to France's struggling provinces.

He was booed by workers when he visited a threatened auto-parts factory in central France, not helping himself there by proclaiming that he was no "Father Christmas." His abrupt handling of de Villiers, a man nearly 30 years his senior - the president let it be known that he was furious at the general's criticism of cuts to the military budget - was seen as "authoritarian", a word that recurred in French press accounts.

Bewilderment greeted the government's vagueness about when the promised housing tax cut, destined for nearly 80 per cent of French households, would be put in place: The prime minister first said it would be phased in gradually, but the outcry prompted officials to correct themselves a week later, promising a rollout by 2018.

"This was one of Macron's signature issues. And then it was announced that this cut would only happen slowly. People said, well, it was just a campaign promise after all," Fourquet said. A 5-euro aid cut to low-income renters was met with groans and cries of unfairness.

Then, the president coupled television images of himself posing with military - on a submarine and with French troops in Mali - with the military budget cut.

"The risk is that an excess of Hollywood-style communication produces an opposite result to the one intended," Fourquet said.

For all of Macron's current polling weakness, the May election's fundamental equation has not changed: He stands alone. The French left is weak and rudderless, the right is deeply divided, and the populist far right has all but disappeared from the political scene.

"He's sufficiently overturned the system that there is not much in front of him," Grunberg said. "Within the system, the position of Macron is very strong. There is no leader on the right or the left. So you have got to put all this in perspective." Macron's fierce champions in parliament - the weakened opposition derides them for being mere rubber-stamp "robots" bolstering a personality cult - insist that the poll drop is temporary, and reflects France's impatience for results.

The opposition has made great sport of mocking the inexperience of Macron's civil-society deputies in parliament, political novices for the most part, many from the private sector: their fumbling attempts at running committee meetings and their ignorance of procedure and protocol.

Le Monde wryly noted that the Assemblée's canteen, used to doling out glasses of wine at night sessions, now had to get used to orange juice and Coca-Cola. But these young men and women are now the ones in the driver's seat.

"It's normal, when you're at the controls, that expectations are very high. Plus there is a very strong desire to change France," said Matthieu Orphelin, a newly elected member of parliament in Macron's movement, La République en Marche, or the Republic on the Move.

"This should encourage us to persevere in what we are trying to do, to go fast in transforming the country," Orphelin said. Besides, he said, "Our work is not based on the polls. We are working on the program." François Patriat, a senator from Burgundy in Macron's political movement, said: "He went up very high, and now he is back to normal. The French are coming back down to the nitty-gritty." But Macron's progress so far "proves that breaking the left-right barrier, which he wanted, is finding results."