President Donald Trump welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron to the White House. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty

August 2, 2018   6 mins

When he was elected last year, Emmanuel Macron was the world’s democratic saviour, the hero of Middle-of-the-Roaders everywhere.

He was the anti-Trump; the answer to Brexit; the man who had confounded Putin’s devilish tricks; the providential centrist who had defied the global rush to anti-globalism; the convinced European who had humiliated Marine Le Pen and halted the French slide to populism and nationalism.

Fourteen months on, France’s young President has many things to be proud of. His reforms of the French labour market and state-owned railways are sensible and long-overdue. He has twice fought the Jurassic wing of the French trades union movement and won. Unemployment is falling slowly. A country addicted to self-harm and self-deprecation has found renewed purpose and direction (so at least some of the French say).

Macron’s style – ‘le Roi du Soleil’ in a blue suit – may prove to be more dangerous than Trump’s experiment in conducting US and world affairs as a 24-hour TV reality show

And Les Bleus won the World Cup, the latest, it seemed, of Macron’s many strokes of good fortune.

In the VIP box in Moscow the President of the Republic celebrated France’s victory as if he was a teenaged fan. A couple of days later, the first serious scandal of his presidency exploded like one of the violent, summer hail-storms which pummelled the French capital last week.

Compared to the multiple, serious allegations against Donald Trump, the ‘affaire Benalla’ may seem low-octane, even banal. It could, eventually, prove to be ‘une affaire d’été’ (a summer silly season story) and not ‘une affaire d’état’ (state scandal).

In the short term, however, the episode has been damaging to the young President, drawing attention to his arrogance, inexperience and lack of judgement. Above all, it has drawn attention to the Trumpian side of his character.

The two presidents, once briefly odd-couple buddies, are chalk and camembert in their politics and world-view. But they are more similar than they first appear.

Both are anti-politics-as-usual politicians who came from nowhere to win scoop their country’s biggest prize at the first attempt. Both are instinctively monarchical or autocratic. Both try to evade parliamentary and media scrutiny. Neither has been marinated in the wearisome complexities, or the safeguards, of representative government.

There are advantages in such approaches but also great dangers. Macron’s style – le Roi du Soleil in a blue suit – may prove to be more dangerous than Trump’s experiment in conducting US and world affairs as a 24-hour TV reality show.

The only danger is that Trump will succeed, which seems unlikely. If he fails, America’s alternative in 2020 will be a return to some form of the stumbling centre-ground – dull, maybe, but reassuring for much of the rest of the word.

In France, the danger is that Macron will fail; that the Affaire Benalla, though trivial in itself, marks the beginning of the end of his absurdly long streak of luck. Macron’s rise has destroyed what remained of France’s failing parties of centre-left and centre-right. If he fails, the only alternatives for French voters in 2022 will be the dark extremes of far Right and Left:  Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Jeremy Corbyn without the humour or the common-sense).

So what is the Affaire Benalla? How serious a threat does it pose to Macron?

Alexandre Benalla is — or was — a 26 years old Elysée personal security chief and presidential confidante. He punched a demonstrator while officially “observing” police handling of protests against the Macron labour reforms on 1 May. The incident was kept secret for two and a half months.

On 18 July, a leaked police video, was obtained by Le Monde. It showed the young official wearing a hard helmet and police armband as he punched a young man and dragged away a young woman.

The Benalla incident draws attention to the weakest and most grating aspect of the Macron presidency

Benalla’s actions were illegal. President Macron and his inner circle were aware of the incident at the time. They failed to report it to judicial authorities, as they should have done. Benalla was given a brief suspension and then returned to work at Macron’s side. Once the video was leaked, the Elysée said that “new circumstances” had come to light. Benalla was fired.

Rumours spread that Benalla was Macron’s lover – something that the President laughed off in public. Other rumours suggested that he was untouchable because he knew intimate presidential secrets. There is no reason to believe either.

It hardly deserves the comparisons made in the French media with Watergate or with President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s secret acceptance of diamonds from Emperor Bokassa of Central Africa in the late 1970s. It was Macron, though, who turned a banal affair into a scandal, first with silence, then with lies and evasions and finally by urging his critics to “come and get” him if they dared. One critic replied that this was the language of a “child king”, not a democratically elected president.

The incident does draw attention to the weakest and most grating aspect of the Macron presidency: his “Jupiterian” approach. He relies on small coterie of young, inexperienced and mostly male close advisers to carry off this idea of a distant cold ruler; most of them are, like Macron, typical products of the finishing schools of the French bureaucratic elite.

Although he created in the space of a few months, his own, centrist political party, its members in the national assembly complain that they are patronised or ignored. Despite his crushing majority, Macron often uses – and some say abuses – the presidential right of decree. He is trying to push through constitutional changes which would further marginalise an already weak parliamentary institution.

Relations between the Elysée and the government under Prime Minister Edouard Philippe are also poor (which is admittedly almost always the case in the French system). The media complains that they have little access to the Elysée and are granted almost no Macron press conferences.

Trump has an obsessively loyal base, blind to his persistent lies, indifferent to, or approving of, his racism and simplistic nationalism

Macron’s style annoys in other ways. Justified attempts to shrink the French state sit badly alongside a Euros 26,000 bill for three months of presidential cosmetics last year, an order for Euros 500,000 of new banqueting plates for the Elysée and plans to build a swimming pool at one of the several French equivalents of Chequers.

The president’s approval ratings were already falling before the Benalla affair broke. He is now, at 39%, scarcely above the level of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande at the same stage of their one-term presidencies. He is well below Donald Trump in the polls.

Such comparisons have limited value. US presidents are always more popular than French presidents. The point is that Trump has an obsessively loyal base, blind to his persistent lies, indifferent to, or approving of, his racism and simplistic nationalism.

It is difficult to define a Macron “base”. If anything, it is a  base composed of swing voters, disillusioned with the failures and tired rhetoric of the old mainstream parties. The swing vote, as the SDP found in Britain in the 1980s, is not a stable platform for longevity in politics.

Macron knows this. He also knows that it will be several years before France truly feels the benefit of his reforms. To avoid the fate of Sarkozy and Hollande, he developed the concept of the ‘providential’ democratic leader.

He tried to recreate the aura of power and majesty with which Charles de Gaulle surrounded the French presidency in the 1960s. He sought to be what one French commentator calls a “liberal strongman” – a leader who has a direct and mystic hold over his followers, like a Putin or an Erdogan or a Trump.

Macron sought to be what one French commentator calls a “liberal strongman” – a leader who has a direct and mystic hold over his followers, like a Putin or an Erdogan or a Trump

The De Gaulle model – in power but not in government; supreme but not responsible for the dreary events of everyday – has not worked since Mitterrand. It was abandoned by Sarkozy and Hollande, who became their own prime ministers in all but name. It is doubtful whether such a model can work in the world of 24-hour news and Twitter.

The concept of the “liberal strongman” seems equally doomed to failure. Trump and Putin and Erdogan excite and bind their followers by inventing enemies and traitors and by making emotional appeals unconstrained by the truth. Macron is not above the occasional mistruth or exaggeration. But he has yet to find the gut-wrenching language which might enlist Flyover France in a crusade for reform of the Eurozone or the replacement of the unwieldy French welfare state with Scandinavian-style “flexisecurity”.

Sometimes Macron finds the right tone: there are no easy solutions; we cannot afford another failure; it is time to release the energy and entrepreneurship which France has stifled for too long. Often – and this is where the Affaire Benalla is dangerous – Macron appears merely arrogant, isolated, puerile, pointy-headed, and enraptured by the myth of his extraordinarily rapid rise to power.

Macron is right about many things. The Eurozone needs radical reform. The French model works well for insiders but punishes outsiders, including racial minorities and the young. As things stand, the opposition is so scattered that it is difficult to imagine anything other than Macron’s re-election in 2022.

But the Benalla affair is a warning. In the late 1970s and early 1980’s a series of absurd scandals rooted in vanity and arrogance destroyed the modernising presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (the Fifth Republic president that Macron most resembles).

The result was 14 years of Mitterrand, which were not all bad, but shielded the already failing French model from the energy (and excesses) of the 1980s. If Macron fails, the result could be far more calamitous. There is no longer a functioning French party of the centre-left; the centre-right is torn between copying Macronist ideas and lurching towards Lepennist-style Islam-baiting and nativism.

The extremes are all that is left as a functioning opposition. And they know it.

Macron, the suited sun king, may be forced in 2022 to resort to the words of the sun king’s successor, Louis XV: “Après moi le deluge”.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.