Since becoming France's president last year, Emmanuel Macron has made bold moves. He has modernized the economy by relaxing labor rules, reducing taxes for entrepreneurs, and making the higher education system more meritocratic. His government's new budget includes the biggest tax cuts introduced in France in more than a decade.
Yet the public remains unimpressed. Macron's approval rating has been sliding for months, threatening to stall his reform agenda and weaken his standing in Europe, where he has positioned himself as the leading defender of liberal values against surging nationalist forces. Recently another of his ministers — previously one of his strongest supporters — resigned from the government after complaining that Macron was losing touch with voters.
It's vital for France's competitiveness – and for Europe's future — that Macron regain his footing. To do so, he must heed criticisms of his leadership style and show willingness to learn from his mistakes.
A former investment banker with no experience in elected office, he rode to power on a wave of discontent with the French political establishment. His two-year-old La République en Marche party holds a majority in parliament, but is viewed with suspicion on both the right and the left, leaving the government with little margin for error. As president, Macron has pushed through needed reforms, including reorganizing the national railways, loosening labor rules to make it easier for businesses to hire and fire, and shrinking the public sector. Each of these steps is crucial to France's long-term prospects, but all have met resistance — as controversial reforms often do. Progress has been slow.
Macron has compounded these unavoidable difficulties with unforced errors. He was slow to fire an aide who was filmed beating a protester in May. His administration has sprung for pricey new dinnerware at the Élysée Palace and pushed for a swimming pool at the presidential summer residence. And his exchanges with ordinary citizens have sometimes been clumsy: Recently, he told an unemployed gardener having trouble finding work that he wasn't trying hard enough. These missteps have delighted Macron's opponents and eroded his political capital.
Macron certainly shouldn't temper his reformist ambitions. He needs to stay focused on boosting economic growth through further deregulation of the labor market and deeper cuts in payroll taxes, which would encourage businesses to hire more workers. He should press on with policies that address inequality and expand opportunity. His 8 billion-euro program providing early education and training for low-income citizens is a good start. To ease youth unemployment, the government should also invest in affordable housing and apprenticeships that provide young workers with pathways to better jobs.
At the same time, Macron would be wise to adjust his political style, showing that he understands the daily struggles of voters even when they disagree with his remedies. Committing to higher standards of transparency and accountability in his administration would help.
Macron's program, necessary as it might be, was never going to be popular with all of France. The charge that he's a defender of privilege is false — but the accusation is starting to stick. This smart, pragmatic and charismatic leader is more likely to succeed if he works harder to refute it.
— Bloomberg View