FINANCIAL TIMES: Emmanuel Macron loses political capital as reform benefits stutter

 Harriet Agnew in Nantes. September 27, 2018

Nine out of 10 voters in Nantes voted last year for Emmanuel Macron as their president. Less than 12 months later, demonstrators burnt his effigy.

Like much of France, this leafy and well-off city on the Loire river is having second thoughts about its young and occasionally imperious president, whose lofty ambitions to drive through reforms from a “Jupiterian” seat in the Elysée Palace are increasingly encountering resistance and misgivings. “

At first I thought it was good to have a young president because I thought he would better understand the people, the young people who are really in trouble,” said Manu, a student at Nantes university, where anti-Macron graffiti has been scrubbed from the walls but the resentment expressed in April’s demonstration lingers. “In fact he is making use of his banking profession while president. For me it really is a case of a president behaving like a banker.”

Jeremie van de Voorde, 20, a history undergraduate leaving the library, said simply: “Macron is too full of himself.” François Hollande, the previous Socialist president, was “less visible [and] perhaps he was a bit soft but he was less authoritarian than Macron”.

Mr Macron, a former Rothschild banker and one-time finance minister who had never run for political office until his audacious and successful Elysée bid, easily won last year’s election against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Since taking office, and backed by a large legislative majority, he has pushed through a number of pro-business reforms aimed at kick-starting the eurozone’s second-largest economy and creating jobs. Emmanuel Macron unveils France’s Budget for 2019

But most benefits from the reforms are yet to be felt: economic growth has slowed and unemployment remains stubbornly above 9 per cent, much higher than in the UK or Germany. The slow progress is eating into Mr Macron’s political capital as he turns his reforming zeal to contentious areas such as simplifying the pension system and slashing thousands of civil service jobs.

The president’s popularity ratings have fallen to a record low of 29 per cent in September, according to pollster Ifop.

Mr Macron’s standing has not been helped by gaffes such as the Benalla Affair, a scandal surrounding his private security guard who impersonated a police officer and punched protesters during May Day riots. This month the president was criticised as out of touch when he told a young unemployed gardener that he simply had to “cross the street” to find a job. Recommended The FT View France awaits the next wave of Macron reforms

he incident fuelled a perception of a president who felt himself superior, said Samuel Barreau, a 31 year-old human resources director at a construction company in Nantes. “He comes across as a bit of a snob.”

The Pays de la Loire region that includes Nantes has some of France’s lowest rates of unemployment. But even here the jobs market remains fragile. Nine out of 10 job offers are for fixed-term contracts, according to Guy Letertre, director of Pôle Emploi, the national unemployment agency, for the Loire-Atlantique region. Three-quarters of these are for less than one month and 30 per cent of these contracts have a duration of one day.

“Macron does not defend the working class,” said Fabienne Pessard, who works at a public hospital in Nantes, taking an early evening walk through the old town. “Working conditions are getting more and more degraded. Everyone needs money but he has distributed it poorly. We do more work with fewer resources.”

Mr Macron’s image problem threatens to cast a shadow over early achievements such as slashing taxes, reforming the state railway operator, SNCF and overhauling a sclerotic labour market. It has also undermined efforts to cast himself — and his En Marche movement — as representing renewal of the political class. “It is all the little things like the Benalla affair that collectively remind us of the past. Macron presents himself as the new world but he lives all these little things just like the old world,” said Mr Barreau, while praising Mr Macron’s reforms of the labour market, notably improving the relationship between employers and unions

Mr Macron’s supporters maintain that a deep transformation of France will take time. “We are putting in place all the pillars to reform our society,” says Anne-France Brunet, an energetic political novice and early supporter of Mr Macron’s fledgling grassroots movement, now one of a crop of new members of the National Assembly.

In one year we laid the foundations, put in place the projects and the laws . . . we have the merit of doing things even if it is not fast enough for some. We cannot say that this is disappointing because it’s only been a year.”

Speaking to journalists this week Bruno Le Maire, finance minister, acknowledged the lag between reforms put in place and results reaped. “We already have the first benefits of the reforms, but these are for the time being limited,” he said. The “French are sceptical, they are asking for very concrete results and I think it takes time before getting the full benefits of the reforms.” While Mr Macron’s approval ratings are at record lows, there are signs that people still believe he can change France. In an Ifop survey published this month by the Atlántico website, 55 per cent of French people said they were convinced the president would continue to “reform the country in depth”.

At the university, Manu’s friend Victoria said she agreed — even if she was not convinced by his style. “I do not necessarily share his way of doing things and some of his remarks, but it is true that when he says something he does do it,” she said. “Perhaps the future will bring some good things. Perhaps.”

Additional reporting by David Keohane in Paris.