From the Benalla affair to the Hulot resignation and plunging poll ratings, there's no end in sight for the troubles of the French President, writes Susan Ram
It’s difficult to overstate the troubles currently confronting French President Emmanuel ‘Manu’ Macron.
As normal life resumes after the long summer break (an important marker in the French calendar denoted by the term ‘rentrée’, redolent of return and re-entry), the across-the-board quality of Macron’s woes impresses.
Shock ministerial resignations; dismal economic tidings; a major political scandal headed in the direction of a constitutional crisis; a sequence of jaw-droppingly bad opinion polls: Macron’s 2018 rentrée horribilis has them all.
In combination, these elements suggest a stalling of Project Macron, just fifteen months after its shiny, media-savvy launch ; With polls placing Macron’s popularity at 31 per cent (Ifop-Fiducial) or lower still (YouGov), French citizens are showing no inclination to get En Marche! (‘on the move!’ - as Macron’s party/‘movement’ is named) in line with the exhortations of the Macron neoliberal blueprint.
The spectacle of a ‘new broom’ French president in freefall is also ominously reminiscent of Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande. To his credit, ‘Manu’ has managed to tumble farther faster; at a comparable moment in his presidency, Hollande was slightly ahead in the popularity stakes, on 32 percent.
Two particular ingredients of the current situation merit closer scrutiny. Firstly, there’s the Benalla Affair: the thuggery enacted by a member of Macron’s hush-hush security detail on young people participating in May Day protests in Paris, and its subsequent cover-up. Secondly, there’s the snap decision of environment minister Nicolas Hulot, one of the few members of Macron’s governmental team to command real popular support, to resign live on radio.
Both elements are important not only for their fall-out in terms of public opinion and governmental credibility but also for what they reveal about the larger Macron project.
The Benalla affair: illegality at the highest level
It was always going to be tricky for government spinners to handle the revelation, by the newspaper Le Monde on July 18, that a close aide of Macron had manhandled a woman and brutally belaboured a young male demonstrator in a tourist-filled Parisian square on May Day.
Not unexpectedly, the assault had been filmed, including by a member of La France Insoumise, who posted the footage on social media, where it was widely shared. Journalists at Le Monde now revealed the identity of the perpetrator, dressed in civvies but sporting a riot squad helmet, a walkie-talkie and an armband marked ‘police’ as he set about his task with gusto. He was Alexandre Benalla, 26 years old and a top-ranking security advisor to the French president.
Further revelations soon blew apart the cover-up operation activated by the Elysée Palace. On May 4, Benalla had had his knuckles rapped by being suspended for 14 days, ostensibly without pay; evidence soon surfaced of his receiving his salary as normal. On his return to work he had been restricted to security duties far from the public gaze, or so the official story ran.
No, not really, for video footage soon revealed him at a sequence of high-stake public events: with Macron at a ceremony at the Pantheon on July 1; by Macron’s side during Bastille Day festivities on July 14; even joining France’s national football team for its World cup victory parade down the Champs-Elysées. By way of further ‘punishment’, in early July Benalla had been set up in a luxury apartment in the Quai Branly, a dependency of the Elysée Palace. What could be going on?
Each day brought fresh insights into Benalla’s seemingly irresistible rise. He’d joined Macron’s election campaign team back in 2016, moving on – and up – from a minor security post for the Parti Socialiste. His pugnacious disposition was soon at work; photos and videos surfaced of him ‘giving it’ to pesky demonstrators and Macron-critical journalists across the 2017 election campaign.
It quickly emerged that, rather than acting alone, he was top dog (‘Monsieur Sécurité’) of a coterie of young bloods dedicated to Macron’s ‘protection’. This covert circle existed in parallel with the president’s official security detail and outside the constraints theoretically provided by the law and democratic scrutiny.
Convention has it that political scandals erupting just before or during the summer ‘silly season’ are particularly amenable to burial or a quick fix. The Benalla affair contradicts this platitude in myriad ways. At every stage, inept government handling, including maladroit interventions by senior ministers and the president himself, has contrived to stoke the flames. And despite his Jupiter-style efforts to float above the conflagration, Macron is himself deeply implicated.
For French voters, it matters that an illegal operation – apparently approved by their head of state, despite its flouting of the rule of law and contempt for democratic functioning – has been operating at the highest level of government.
Macron’s response to the unmasking of what’s been dubbed ‘voyoucratie’ (lout-ocracy or yob rule) has done little to assuage public concern. Days of presidential silence followed the press bombshell of July 18. Then, on July 25, Manu delivered a theatrical, gesture-laden ‘mea culpa’ before the TV cameras (“If they want to find the person responsible, he’s before you. Let them come and find him. I answer to the French people”). Few found this bizarre display of breast-beating remotely persuasive.
For many in France, Macron’s real attitude to the Benalla affair is indicated by the call he made to Gérard Larcher, president of the Senate (the upper chamber of the French parliament), on September 11. The Senate is currently conducting its own enquiry into the Benalla affair, and Manu phoned to register his displeasure with the direction this is taking.
Media reports suggest he was particularly put out by the feisty attitude of the enquiry commission’s chief, Philippe Bas, whom he accused of interfering in the judiciary and failing to respect the ‘separation of powers’. In the context of such brazen meddling from the top, the Benalla affair is heading in the direction of a full-scale constitutional crisis.
Hulot’s resignation: revealing Macron’s environmental feet of sand
The on-air resignation of environment minister Nicolas Hulot has lifted the lid on another dimension of Project Macron. This is its inability to deliver promises of meaningful action on the environment front - promises sold to voters last year as key elements of the bright new road ahead.
For Macron, persuading Hulot, a former television nature presenter and a high-profile environmental campaigner with left-wing credentials, to join his ministerial team was something of a coup; although approached by previous administrations, Hulot had never before entered government. Promises of path-breaking change, couched in the language of pressing environmental concerns, seem to have cajoled him to break with past practice and sign up as “Minister for an Ecological Transition.”
Just over a year later, he’d had enough. During a radio interview broadcast live by France Inter on August 28 he announced he was stepping down.
With the candour of an activist rather than a professional politician, he proceeded to set out his reasons for doing so. After explaining that he did not want to “become cynical” or to “water down” what he was demanding, he took listeners though a sequence of governmental retreats on the environment, including the kicking into the long grass of action to reduce France’s reliance on nuclear power and the defeat earlier this year, by a parliament with a huge government majority, of his proposal to ban carcinogenic glyphosate herbicides. Macron’s efforts to woo the muscular French hunting lobby had proved the final straw. As Clémentine Autain, a deputée (MP) for La France Insoumise, notes,
“Putting his diagnosis out there publicly and explaining to his listeners the reality he faced, Hulot seems to have been driven to the inevitable conclusion that he should quit the government.”
The interview was also striking for its laser-like illumination of the structural factors at work within the Macron project. Austerity, neoliberalism, the dogmatic demands of European treaties with their focus on growth at any cost: all these realities suddenly found an airing on national radio. “We set objectives for ourselves, but we hadn’t the resources,” Hulot told listeners. “The budget constraints meant we were well aware in advance that we would not be able to see them through.”
In the context of the endless stream of murk emanating from the Macron-Benalla ‘start-up’ initiative, Hulot’s resignation has provided voters with further cause for anger - and disgust.
While the ex-minister’s popularity has surged (up 25 points in a month), Macron’s has taken an ignominious plunge: a YouGov poll for Le Huffpost and Cnews published earlier this month found support for him down to a mere 23 percent of those sampled.
No end in sight
Damage-limitation efforts continue, along with image-burnishing initiatives. Last week saw Macron announce an ‘anti-poverty’ initiative and acknowledge the responsibility of the French state for the torture and murder of a communist mathematician during the Algerian freedom struggle. None of this seems remotely up to the task of rebuilding trust.
As for Benalla, he retains his trademark jack-the-lad cockiness. Since getting the sack in late July, he’s been basking in the fulsome media attention his notoriety has attracted, always snappily dressed for the cameras. He has made no attempt to conceal his contempt for official probes into his activities. On receiving his summons to appear before the Senate enquiry, he responded with a flat refusal, garnished by a spot of name-calling (Philippe Bas, he said, was just a ‘petit marquis’).
He was subsequently persuaded to comply with the law and attend, and faced with questions from senators on September 19, Benalla delivered a bravura performance, arriving late before supplying well-coached, rambling responses that at times threatened to bore his inquisitors to death. "Benalla is a smart ass who takes us all for simpletons," was how one senator summed up the session to journalists.
There can be few in France who see an early end to the circus. The Benalla scandal is set to run and run. Plans for mass resistance are already afoot for October - watch this space for our coverage.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.