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Emmanuel Macron: From celebrated centrist to divisive ruler | France News

On May 7, 2017, a Sunday, Emmanuel Macron was elected France’s youngest president at 39, celebrating the victory in front of the Pyramid at the Louvre Museum.

It was a brisk evening and the crowds, the 66 percent of the country who voted for him, and much of Europe, breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Macron had beaten far-right Marine Le Pen to the Elysee Palace in a second round, bucking a rising populist trend in the West which had served up two political earthquakes – the election of US President Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit referendum.

At the grand party on the esplanade of the Louvre Museum, French Muslims with North African ancestry and Syrian refugees danced and celebrated alongside gay couples and African immigrants, all joyously chanting “Macron, president!”

Dressed in a black suit and tie, Macron walked on stage to Ode to Joy, the EU anthem, forgoing La Marseillaise. It was a symbolic choice. Had Le Pen won, she would have wasted no time in trying to pull France out of the bloc.

“Let’s love France,” he said. “Tonight, you won. France won.”

For one night, people revelled in the far right’s loss, even though many had held their noses as they voted for Macron – a centrist, former investment banker, the economy minister under President Francois Hollande, and sometimes described as a “soft populist”.

Macron celebrates on the stage at his victory rally near the Louvre in Paris, France May 7, 2017 [Christian/Reuters]

Days after the result, Rokhaya Diallo, a writer and activist, offered a prescient observation, telling Al Jazeera in Paris, “Le Pen supporters who are in fragile situations and facing economic challenges could become poorer under Macron, and have more reason to support her. Macron is trying to dismantle social laws, the labour laws. He will face many protests on the streets.”

A year after he became president, the “yellow vest” movement was formed, demanding economic justice.

By the end of 2019, another series of protests began against Macron’s economic vision, this time, his proposal to overhaul the pensions system.

Lately, his government has come under pressure for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. A group of COVID-19 survivors is attempting to sue Prime Minister Jean Castex for his virus policy, which they argue prioritised the economy over public health.

This week, journalists and activists are protesting a bill that could punish people who share images of police officers’ faces on social media or elsewhere, with a year in prison or a 45,000-euro ($53,000) fine.

“He was a good campaigner, able to sell many dreams and probably sees himself as a brilliant speaker who had never faced any failure before,” Diallo told Al Jazeera, in a recent interview.

“But he is not as talented when it comes to connecting with the people. He has trouble putting himself in the shoes of regular people and understanding their challenges.

“On his path to become president, he was revered by the middle class and gentrifiers, but he has never been able to connect with the working class.”

Macron, then-presidential adviser to Francois Hollande, talks on a mobile phone as he arrives to attend a general meeting at the OECD headquarters in Paris, Monday, October 29, 2012 [Bertrand Langlois/Pool/AP]

In April 2022, France will vote again and Macron is desperately trying to avoid the same scenario; Le Pen announced earlier this year she will be running.

“We cannot take his re-election for granted, we have to fight and we are so afraid that Marine Le Pen will pass the second round,” Sonia Krimi, a politician with Macron’s La Republique en Marche! (The Republic on the Move; LREM) party, told Al Jazeera.

She feared Le Pen could succeed in the same way that Trump did in 2017, snatching the presidency after Obama “because of people’s frustrations”.

Macron is also in the thick of office politics.

In May, he lost a parliamentary majority as a group of left-wing politicians defected and formed a new party, “Nous demain” – Tomorrow is ours.

“What is interesting is that since General de Gaulle, we have a president who has no political party,” Alain Gresh, a journalist, author and the founder of OrientXXI.info, told Al Jazeera. “For Macron, many MPs have left. There is no real structure … His legacy will not be solid because there is no political or historical solidity.”

An ‘Islamodiversion’?

In more recent weeks, however, the most fervent demonstrations targeting Macron have erupted far from Europe’s borders, in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims are responding to his critique of Islam, his plans to regulate the way Muslims practise in France, and his defence of the Prophet Muhammad caricatures that deeply offend them.

The caricatures, recently reprinted by Charlie Hebdo as the trial for the deadly 2015 attacks got under way, often link Islam to violence and are considered by many to be Islamophobic.

After the October 16 killing of Samuel Paty, a teacher who was beheaded in broad daylight after showing his students the images, the caricatures were projected on government buildings.

“We will not give up cartoons,” Macron said at a ceremony held for Paty.

A French Republican Guard holds a portrait inside Sorbonne University’s courtyard in Paris on October 21, 2020, during a national homage to French teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his civics class [Francois Mori/Pool/AFP]

While French Muslims condemned the gruesome attack on Paty, they increasingly fear collective punishment as the language of Macron’s closest colleagues hardens and at times, resembles far-right rhetoric.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, for instance, has suggested halal and kosher aisles in supermarkets were a sign of “separatism”, and Prime Minister Castex has dismissed concerns about colonialism.

Amid the protests, Macron has been depicted as the devil in an Iranian newspaper and been scolded by Muslim world leaders.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, often Macron’s nemesis on the world stage, said the French leader needed “mental health checks” because of his views on Islam, as he joined the protesters’ calls for a boycott on French goods.

In his anticipated speech on October 2, Macron said, “Islam is a religion that is currently experiencing a crisis all over the world”, as he outlined his plan to tackle “Islamist separatism” – in his words a “political-religious project” which is materialising through repeated “deviations” from the French republic’s values.

“In France,” said Gresh, “Muslims are determined through the prism of secularism.”

The bill seeks to ban mosques from receiving foreign financing, limit homeschooling, and prevent foreign imams from preaching in French mosques because the practice created “rivalry and dysfunction” and “keeps the restructuring of this religion in our country from moving forward”.

In one breath, Macron decried ISIL, and in another, he lamented local authorities who had considered offering “menus that accommodate religious restrictions in cafeterias”.

The front page of the October 27, 2020 edition of the Iranian newspaper Vatan-e Emrooz depicts Macron as the devil and called him ‘Satan’ in a cartoon [Vahid Salemi/AP]

Under his proposed new law, designed to strengthen the existing framework upholding secularism, providing such menus – with, for example, halal options – would be banned in order to “defend public sector impartiality”.

“It is an Islamodiversion,” said Yasser Louati, a human rights and civil liberties advocate, of the president’s latest moves, “to divert public scrutiny from Macron’s catastrophic track record as a president.

“It is not only about perpetuating the colonial management of Muslim populations, but also strengthening the grip of the state upon Muslim citizens.

“Unfortunately, we don’t see enough opposition from the rest of French society because willingly or not, many are stuck to the idea that as long as the minority is repressed, they are safe.

“You can accept that the state can exert extra powers against a specific minority – Muslims today, Jews yesterday. But once the law is passed, it is applicable to everybody. You will feel safe, but you will be next. The question is not if, but when.”

For many critics, Macron’s October 2 speech was yet another sign that the president and his administration are pandering to the hard right in a bid to secure their votes in 2022.

Last year, he gave an interview to the French far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles, which this August depicted a Black minister of Parliament as an African slave, telling the reporter during a 40-minute interview on board a presidential flight, “It’s a very good journal, it must be read to understand what the right thinks.”

As the recent anti-France protests swelled, Macron briefly went on the defensive. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he backed down, saying he understood Muslims’ concerns about the caricatures but was responsible for protecting freedom of expression.

Bangladeshis march en masse calling for a boycott of French products and denouncing Macron for his comments about Prophet Muhammad caricatures, in Dhaka on October 27, 2020 [Munir Uz Zaman/AFP]

But in recent days, he has, in a Trump-like manner, been picking fights with the world’s media, blaming them for “legitimising” violence by analysing France’s fragile relationship with its Muslims – moves that appear contrary to the ideals of free speech.

The Financial Times pulled a column titled, Macron’s war on Islamic separatism only divides France further, after the French president made a complaint – Macron insisted he was against “Islamist”, rather than Islamic, separatism.

He has also called New York Times media columnist Ben Smith to share his views, saying, “When I see them (English-language media) legitimising this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”

In that exchange, he also said, “If you (the media) have any question on France, call me.”

At the time of publishing, Macron’s office had not responded to Al Jazeera’s calls or emails requesting comment.

‘The issue that concerns society today involves Islam’

The French leader’s push to criminalise certain behaviours under the proposed law – the bill will go to parliament next month – contrasts with some of the messages of his campaign.

In, Revolution – Macron’s memoir released months in advance of the 2017 presidential election – he appeared to be sympathetic, if a little patronising at times, towards Muslims.

In a chapter entitled, Doing more for those who have less, he recognised the consequences of structural racism, acknowledging that Muslim candidates were less likely to be hired than those who appeared to be Catholic.

When writing about his beloved late grandmother, a teacher, he said she would have “deplored these (veiled young Muslim) girls being prevented from gaining access to true knowledge”, presumably because of their cultural background, but ultimately, “she would have deplored the fact that we could find nothing better than prohibition, confrontation, and all the hostility that runs so contrary to what we ought to be creating for our future.”

Macron and his wife Brigitte Trogneux have a lunch break at the mountain top during a campaign visit in Bagneres de Bigorre, in the Pyrenees mountain, France, April 12, 2017 [Eric Feferberg/Pool/Reuters]

He said he felt moved when listening to Abd Al Malik, a French rapper who converted from Christianity to Islam, reciting Camus.

And in a section titled, Caring for France, he admitted that France has not managed to “find a place for Islam”, unlike other religions.

But in that same chapter, he wrote, “Let us be honest. While extremism may be at work in other religions, the issue that concerns society today involves Islam.”

On fighting “radical Islamism”, he said, “How can we do this? Not by tabling new laws – we already have them.”

This sentiment, that the existing legal structures were strong enough to stem the spread of dangerous ideologies, was repeated throughout the younger Macron’s book.

Little more than three years later, however, Macron is indeed pushing to “table a new law”.

“Speaking as a human right activist, Emmanuel Macron has called for the right to violate the French constitution and impose state sanctions and exceptional measures when it comes to Muslims,” said Louati.

“He is asking for and promising more repression by violating ‘laicite’ (secularism) and the Constitution.”

Macron the mediator, and the Middle East

Often described by observers as “ambitious”, the French media has regularly compared Macron to Napoleon Bonaparte and Macron has described himself as a “Jupiterian” president.

“I won’t let anything pass,” he said, after admitting an awkward, battle-of-the-alpha-males handshake with US President Donald Trump in 2017 was not entirely innocent.

He regularly clashes with Erdogan, has said NATO was experiencing “brain death” and recently claimed the UN Security Council was out of “useful solutions”.

“He thinks he is the one who can move forward from 20 years of international politics status quo, or inaction,” said Krimi, the LREM politician. “He thinks that he is a young, elected man who is the perfect balance between liberals and conservatives. This could be seen as arrogant, but it is what it is. Deal with it.”

Macron welcomes Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on April 10, 2018 [Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]

After his inauguration, in the first major insight into his foreign policy vision, Macron set out what could well be described as an ambitious plan, seeking to reinstate French influence.

“France must become a great power again,” he said. “That’s a necessity.

“The West has got lost in an untimely moral interventionism in the Middle East and North Africa over the past 10 years. It’s allowed authoritarian regimes to emerge which it didn’t see coming: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Iran.”

Macron expressed France’s willingness to act as an intermediary between the United States and Russia in the Syrian conflict to find a “sustainable solution”, as he offered to spearhead an international contact group to resuscitate stalled peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition forces in the Swiss city of Geneva.

He also proposed to act as a mediator in the Gulf crisis, where Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar in 2017 and imposed a blockade, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism – charges Qatar has repeatedly denied.

‘He knows how to play the media’

But it was his recent two visits to Lebanon, in August, in the aftermath of an explosion that left more than 200 people dead and exacerbated an already worsening economic situation – that saw him ridiculed.

Images of Macron walking in Beirut’s devastated streets, with his shirtsleeves rolled up and a crowd of Lebanese people beseeching him to help them, were criticised by commentators and analysts, both inside and outside France.

Macron visits the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, August 6, 2020 [Thibault Camus/Pool/AP]

“I’m ashamed of the Lebanese political leaders. Ashamed,” the French leader said, explaining that he could not fix Lebanon’s problems, and it was up to the Lebanese to solve their own issues.

Rami Khouri, a senior public policy fellow and journalism professor at the American University of Beirut, said the statement was “insulting”.

“The reality is that he didn’t really know what he was doing,” Khouri told Al Jazeera. “It was counterproductive in that it gave the Lebanese political elite, the sectarian oligarchy, an extra few months in which they figured out that the best way to keep their hold on power was to bring back Saad Hariri [as prime minister], which is what happened.”

Macron’s “publicity stunt”, Khouri said, has cost the Lebanese people.

“Macron hurt them in terms of the symbolism of a foreign political leader arrogantly coming in and saying, ‘I’m going to help you solve your problems, but you have to do it yourself.’ It’s like telling a child, ‘You have to learn how to button your own coat and I am going to help you by showing you how to do that’. It’s insulting. It’s a colonial hangover that is still there.”

US President Donald Trump and Macron shake hands during a meeting at the Prefecture of Caen, Normandy, France, on June 6, 2019, on the sidelines of commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the WWII Allied landings in Normandy [Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP]

Khouri said that for many North Africans, Arabs and Muslims, Macron is regarded as “a bit of a cartoon character”.

“He knows how to play to the media, but substantively, he’s unsuccessful in terms of the Middle East and continues to play the game like how the colonial powers have always played it.”

Philippe Marliere, a professor of French and European politics at University College London, said Macron’s actions could be explained as a continuation of France’s cultural and geopolitical role, given Paris’s historic ties with Lebanon, in particular, as well as the wider Middle East.

“Lebanon, the French like to think, has close ties at least with part of the political class and regimes,” he said. “There’s a part of Beirut which is still quite Francophone.”

However, Marliere said that back in France, there were very few people who were impressed by Macron’s Beirut mission.

“It was seen as a sort of grandstanding [gesture] rather than a natural, thought-out reaction,” he told Al Jazeera.

In France, there was a sense of incredulity at their president going to a country in the Middle East offering his help, while turning a blind eye to the domestic issues his country is facing.

“It does come out as arrogance because Macron has his own problems at home and he’s not always on top of them,” Marliere said.

That “arrogance”, he continued, is driven by Macron’s desire to “affirm his own power because there’s a bit of vacancy when it comes to the stage of popular world leaders.”

‘Yellow vest’ protesters demonstrate peacefully in the streets of Paris, France, on January 12, 2019 [Thibault Camus/AP]

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, a well-liked figure who is admired outside of Europe for her country’s initial embrace of refugees and asylum seekers, is soon departing from power.

With the rising influences of China, India and other smaller regional powers, some analysts have argued that Macron is trying to seize an opportunity.

“In line with French attitudes to world politics, Macron [sees] France as having a role to play,” Marliere said.

Yet, Macron’s political inexperience – he had not been elected to any public post prior to winning the French presidency – could see him face his own shortcomings in the near future.

“I can see why Macron is [perceived] as punching above his weight and I do think, in the end, he won’t be able to deliver,” Marliere said.

“The fact that he is still relatively an unproven leader, young, could explain that and I can understand why some world leaders are quite irritated by him.”

A double game in Libya?

But while the accusations of neo-colonialism in Lebanon could be viewed as damaging, French credibility on the world stage has taken a harder hit in the case of Libya.

France has been accused of playing a “double game”, because while Paris has said it supports the UN-mediated peace process, Macron’s quiet backing of eastern-based renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar has, at times, come at the expense of both Europe and NATO’s strategic objectives.

An ardent defender of multilateralism who spared no effort to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Macron has shown himself less amenable to dialogue in Libya.

He has supported Haftar, who also enjoys Moscow’s favour, even as the renegade commander last year launched an offensive to wrest control of the capital Tripoli from the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

Macron walks with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, left, and General Khalifa Haftar, right, commander in the Libyan National Army (LNA), after talks about a political deal to help end Libya’s crisis in La Celle-Saint-Cloud near Paris, France, July 25, 2017 [Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]

When the European Union jumped into action to issue a symbolic message calling on the 74-year-old to halt his military campaign, Paris blocked the draft statement.

And while eager to condemn Turkey’s intervention in support of the GNA on account of its violation of a 2011 UN arms embargo, Macron has failed to denounce Russia and the UAE, which also back Haftar, as the two countries have proven to be adept at funnelling weapons into the war-torn country.

Analysts said that, had Haftar succeeded in overtaking Tripoli, Moscow would have fulfilled its decades-old ambition of establishing a permanent military presence in the southern Mediterranean, an area long seen as falling under the purview of Western powers.

“In secret, we help Haftar and officially, we support the government of Tripoli,” said Gresh, the French journalist.

“These dictatorial regimes are barriers against immigration, whether they come from sub-Saharan Africa or the Maghreb. This is old European policy.”

Unlike Russia, which observers have said tempered its support for Haftar in the face of his defeat outside Tripoli, France has continued to push for his reintegration into the peace process.

For Tarek Megerisi, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Macron has adopted the same threat perception as the UAE: viewing Erdogan’s championing of political Islam as damaging to regional stability.

“Their language is all about Islamism,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s all about ideology, this makes them blind to the strategic value of the alliance with Turkey.

“There’s no love between Merkel and Erdogan, or between Boris Johnson and Erdogan, but there’s an understanding that Turkey is a very important strategic ally in the wider containment of Russia.”

Mali, France’s ‘Afghanistan’

In contrast to his approach to Libya, Macron’s policy initiatives in West Africa, France’s former colonial dominion, have been marked by consistency and a certain level of progressiveness – but he still faces accusations of paternalism, especially from young Africans who, like the youthful president, were born after the colonial period.

In the Sahel, a semi-arid region on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert that cuts across several African countries, he has been forced to commit additional troops to a costly and seemingly endless mission, from which world powers, notably the US, have been eager to withdraw.

Still, critics said Paris’s attempt to restore security in Mali, known as “France’s Afghanistan”, and the wider Sahel would not have been needed, had Paris not pressed so hard for the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

The Libyan ruler’s removal in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising, which involved French jets, created a power vacuum that allowed members of the marginalised Tuareg community to wage their rebellion – and its usurpation, later, by affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIL.

A close-up of a French flag patch worn by French troops in Africa’s Sahel region, as part of Operation Barkhane in Inaloglog, Mali, October 17, 2017 [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

“The French military presence [in Mali] is driven now primarily by security concerns, but a withdrawal is unlikely even if the security threat were to be dissipated,” Oumar Ba, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College and editor of the Africa is a Country website, told Al Jazeera.

“Clearly, the military intervention there, initiated by Hollande and perpetuated by Macron, has not shown any meaningful restoration of peace and stability or the capacity of the Malian state.

“Beyond the security issues, France and Europe’s engagement in the Sahel is also driven by a desire to stop migrants, but basically extending European border controls into the Sahel.”

‘I’m from a generation that doesn’t tell Africans what to do’

But Macron had claimed he was different from other, older French leaders because, as he told university students in 2017 in Burkina Faso, a former French colony, “I’m a generation that has never known Africa as a colonised continent … There is no longer a French policy for Africa! … I’m from a generation that doesn’t tell Africans what to do.”

In a long and promising speech, he recognised the undeniable “crimes of European colonisation” and committed to returning objects of African origin in the next five years.

Later, however, in a question-and-answer session, a female student asked Macron why there were more French soldiers in her country than Burkinabe freshmen at French universities.

Defensively, pointing his finger, he replied, “Imagine that you are a young woman living in Angouleme, France. You have never seen Ouagadougou. You may not even have heard of Ouagadougou. And your younger brother, fighting alongside French troops, died last month to save you. And you? You don’t have a younger brother who is currently fighting on Belgian or French soil.

“You only need one thing to do for the French soldiers: to applaud them!”

Macron greets people as he arrives to visit a school in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, November 28, 2017 [Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]

Some in the room praised Macron’s response, but not all Burkinabes had welcomed the French leader – protesters earlier lobbed stones at the French delegation’s motorcade and French troops in the country were attacked with a hand grenade.

Months earlier, in his first stumble regarding Africa, he had upset many with his comments at the G20 summit in Germany, referring to Africa’s “civilisational” challenges, and by saying, “When countries like we see today are having seven or eight children per woman, you can decide to spend billions of euros but you will bring no stability.”

Nadine Machikou, professor of political science at the Yaounde International War College, told Al Jazeera that Macron’s Africa policy is tainted with “paradoxes and ambiguities”.

“When he speaks of the bellies of Black women, which, in his view, would legitimise the non-placement of an aid policy due in particular to their prolific motherhood, we see that there is undoubtedly a cultural gap,” she said.

“For a second five-year term, Macron’s margins for action are low; they are relatively low because they have been crushed by the weight of a historical legacy, that of Francafrique,” she added, referring to the French strategy of influencing its former colonies.

For Ba, Macron has a habit of going back on his word.

“Macron was at first viewed broadly as a new face, a youthful one who could probably bring in a new French posture towards Africa. And his engagement with African youth during his visits on the continent [strengthened] that perception.

“But of course, a few years later, it is clear that nothing has really changed, and that France still views the continent through the narrow lens of the French state’s interests in terms of security, migration and French multinational corporations.”

Before his election, in February 2017, Macron acknowledged France’s colonisation of Algeria as a “crime against humanity”, in an interview with an Algerian TV channel, but stopped short of apologising on the country’s behalf.

But by December, his tone changed.

“I’ve already said we need to recognise what we did, but Algeria’s youth can’t just look to its past. It needs to look forward and see how it will create jobs,” Macron said, answering questions from Algerians in downtown Algiers.

“Macron is an adept of making statements that may seem quite daring compared to his predecessors,” said Ba, “but again, these are just statements that he actually walks back on when he faces a backlash.”

Macron accompanies Marine Le Pen following a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, November 21, 2017. France votes in 18 months’ time, and Macron does not want to repeat 2017, when Le Pen made it through to the final round [Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]


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