Macron Shifts Rightward, and Charts a New Course

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The political ideology known as “Macronism” has always been about action, even agitation, at least in verbal form. Emmanuel Macron burst onto the scene in 2017 promising a “revolution.” Since then, over more than six years as France’s president, he has embraced a “refoundation” and renamed his political party “Renaissance.” Now, he’s calling for civic “rearmament.”

It is perhaps not evident from this re-energizing lexicon of a restless man that in many ways Mr. Macron, 46, has moved in a conservative direction. The other word beginning with “R” that characterizes a president whose roots lie in the Socialist Party is “rightward.”

Mr. Macron’s prime-time news conference this week was laced with the words “order” and “respect” as the president called for “La Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem, to be learned in primary school and for the experimental reintroduction of school uniforms.

He would, he said, dedicate himself to ensuring that “France remains France,” reintroducing civics lessons, instituting a form of mandatory community service for teenagers, combating illegal immigration and doubling the police presence in the streets to fight drugs and “incivility.” Mr. Macron had clearly freed his inner de Gaulle.

As nods and winks to the right go, his performance was conspicuous. “Macronism is dead, long live SarkoMacronism!” Franz-Olivier Giesbert wrote in the weekly newsmagazine Le Point, alluding to former President Nicolas Sarkozy, a right-wing politician with an Energizer Bunny style.

This was perhaps a little unfair to Mr. Macron, who delivered a 150-minute tour de force that addressed every dossier from the war in Ukraine to the spread of infertility in French society. His performance was also a reminder for Americans of what youth can deliver in politics.

Mr. Macron’s aim was to set a course for his new government, headed by Gabriel Attal, who, at 34, is the youngest prime minister in modern French history.

The composition of Mr. Attal’s government, with eight of the 15 ministries held by politicians who came from the center-right party Les Républicains, was already a clear indication that Mr. Macron was done with the ambiguity that earned him the sobriquet of the “at-the-same-time” president.

The decisive turn to youth and to the right reflected several things, officials close to Mr. Macron said. Morale at the Élysée Palace had been low with “lame-duck” mutterings multiplying as the president, who is term limited and must leave office in 2027, confronted growing unpopularity and cast around for a sense of direction. About two-thirds of the country is hostile to him, according to polls.

Because the main challenge to Mr. Macron comes from the extreme right, in the form of the perennial presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, and because he depends on support in the National Assembly from the center-right Republicans party to pass legislation, the president has a strong incentive to act.

He does not have an absolute majority in Parliament, a quandary that no verbal acrobatics will dispel.

At the news conference, Mr. Macron called Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally “the party of collective impoverishment,” and vowed to remedy “the sense of dispossession” felt by some French people — an apparent reference to the consequences of immigration, particularly from North Africa, that Ms. Le Pen has exploited with her xenophobic invective.

The most immediate political test of Mr. Macron’s decisions will come in the European Parliament elections in June.

The president wants to head off a far-right victory by countering the charismatic appeal of Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old president of the National Rally. Mr. Macron has now deployed Mr. Attal, whose telegenic assurance and ready adaptability make him a natural protégé of the president, against the youthful rightist leader.

Beyond the election, Mr. Macron will rely on Mr. Attal to sap the popularity of Ms. Le Pen through tough measures on immigration and security. “France will never rhyme with decline,” Mr. Attal said in his acceptance speech earlier this month. He used the words “strong” and “strength” six times.

The Paris Olympics are coming this summer, and the president is counting on a triumphant moment of beauty and pageantry from the banks of the Seine to the northern suburbs to give his presidency a lift. He announced on Thursday that access to cultural performances of all kinds would be free for two months over the summer to mark the Olympics.

The puzzle of Mr. Macron’s unpopularity is that, on many levels, he has been a successful president — overcoming the wave of Yellow Vest protests, beating the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, bringing unemployment down sharply to a little over 7 percent, maintaining modest growth despite the effects of the war in Ukraine and attracting high levels of foreign investment.

Indeed, France has recently had reason to gloat. Its neighbor Germany, which entered a recession last year, has grown only 0.7 percent since 2019 and is facing widespread street protests provoked in part by a decision to phase out diesel fuel subsidies — the very issue that sparked the French Yellow Vest movement in 2018.

The case today that the French economy is stronger today than the erstwhile German powerhouse appears persuasive.

France, with its successful reliance on nuclear power for about 60 to 70 percent of its electricity generation, enjoys ridiculing Germany’s lack of domestic energy sources. At the same time, the rapid rise in Germany of the far right Alternative for Germany party, known as the AfD, has reflected a crisis of confidence and malaise more usually associated with France. The National Rally is an old phenomenon that has now entered the political mainstream; the strength of the AfD in Germany is a shocking new one.

Can Mr. Macron translate any of these achievements into greater popularity? The answer is unclear because much of the dislike of him lies more in feeling than analysis — a sense that he is somehow alien, too self-regarding, too enamored of his own voice, a man from “Jupiter” who does not know how to pat the backside of a cow, an essential French political qualification.

One thing is clear: He has rolled the dice to keep Ms. Le Pen from the highest office in the land, and the clock is now ticking. As for France remaining France, that will no doubt take care of itself.

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Macron Shifts Rightward, and Charts a New Course

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