The ceiling above Emmanuel Macron is adorned with golden cherubs and behind him are the French and European flags. In front of him are some 300 journalists, all waiting in the ballroom of the Élysée Palace to listen to the French president's new year's wishes. Macron speaks at length about the value of a free press, yet he says nothing about his controversial pension reform or the fact that traffic in Paris has been paralyzed for weeks. Nor does he mention the major foreign policy issues France is facing as 2020 gets started. It is a gray Wednesday afternoon in Paris and the 42nd consecutive day of strikes. Macron looks a little tired.
Since the beginning of December, the French government has been struggling to hash out a solution to the pension dispute, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe negotiating around the clock with trade unions and employers' associations. Some of the appointment logs the prime minister's office has been sending out recently are so jam-packed they read like some kind of social-partner speed-dating event.
The negotiations are focused on the single largest and most important reform of Macron's term: the simplification of France's pension system. His is not the first government to take on this elephantine task, and others before him have failed. Macron is due to present a first draft of the reforms to his ministers on Jan. 24. Further negotiations will continue into spring.
If Macron can successfully push his reforms through parliament before summer, he's sure to win the respect of even the conservatives and his chances of a second term would improve, even if his government has already made some concessions. If Macron fails, though, it would represent a sensitive blow to his image as a reformer.
Breaking With Tradition
Macron has been president of France for two years and eight months now, putting him just slightly past the halfway mark of a five-year term of office. Some time ago, he set in motion what he has called "Acte II," the second act of his presidency. Macron has hunkered down in the Élysée, a palatial building that many of the men who came before him often said feels like a bunker -- a place that isolates its occupant from the rest of the world.
But unlike his immediate predecessor, François Hollande, Macron has never seemed out of place. On the contrary: He appears to feel right at home. Much like the Socialist François Mitterrand, Macron appreciates symbols of power and grand gestures as much as he likes violating the Élysée's anachronistic protocols. According to palace employees, Macron tends to walk out and greet his guests in the hallway rather than waiting for them in his office. In the palace's basement, the president regularly boxes with one of his bodyguards -- in a room that is normally reserved for security guards.
The Macrons dusted off the salons of the Élysée and had the heavy wall tapestries, dark red damask curtains and large-format oil paintings moved into storage, replacing them with light-colored fabrics, modern furniture and contemporary art. The bunker is much more inviting now. In a further attempt to preserve some shred of normalcy, France's first couple is said to go out to eat at a restaurant at least once a week.
But is it possible to remain normal when palace guards shout, "Monsieur le Président de la République!" every time Macron walks into a room? Or when angry demonstrators have been carrying placards outside the palace for weeks that read: "Let's bury the Macronie"?
Reforms Are Coming
Many people who know Emmanuel Macron say he has not really changed in the roughly two and a half years that he has lived at the Élysée. He is still just as restless as he was at the beginning of his term, they say, and is still wont to send text messages to advisors at 3 a.m. As always, he is said to require astonishingly little sleep.
Others are critical of Macron for having become so sure of himself that his answers, whether at press conferences or during discussions with citizens, have gotten longer and longer. Too long, in fact.
Confidants of the French president describe the mood inside the Élysée in these days of unending strikes as nervous, though they say it's not nearly as tense as it was a year ago at the height of the Yellow Vest crisis. Still, the general strike currently gripping the country is already the longest spell of industrial action in the history of the French railway operator SNCF. It's also the longest-running social conflict since the unrest of 1968. The oft-cited protests of 1995, which were also directed against a planned pension reform, lasted only three weeks. The prime minister at the time, Alain Juppé, ultimately withdrew his plans.
No one has any intention of following in Juppé's footsteps today, even if the strike continues. A reform of the pension system is on its way, the government says -- and with it, the abolition of a system that many experts describe as highly unjust, one with special regulations for 42 professions and privileges for SNCF and Metro conductors. A point system is to take its place that will apply to everyone equally.
Since Prime Minister Édouard Philippe offered to abandon the government's plan to raise the retirement age to 64 last week, a compromise seems possible for the first time. Still, the additional working years would have funneled 12 billion euros more into the pension system by 2027, which, according to the government's calculations, will now be missing. It's now up to the unions to find another solution to finance the pension scheme by late April. Otherwise, the prime minister has said, the government could push through its planned reforms per decree. The unions' victory is, therefore, only a partial one.
The End of an Era
But the protests aren't just about pensions. They have a lot to do with mistrust and anger toward a government that has already abolished the wealth tax and relaxed protections for employees against dismissal. Protestors are also frustrated at the perceived end of a societal model in which the state protects its citizens, guarantees solidarity and provides civil servants with generous rewards, including early retirement and a good pension.
"The absurd thing about this labor dispute is that it is directed at the first reform of Macron's that promises real social justice," says political scientist Roland Cayrol. "It's just that, to this day, many people haven't understood the reform. Which is a product of the government having done a miserable job of explaining and selling it."
Cayrol is one of those with whom Macron occasionally exchanges text messages. The 78-year-old has personally known every French president since Mitterrand and has worked as an advisor to many of them. He warned Macron not to push through changes without involving citizens in the process.
Nevertheless, Cayrol considers the pension reform to be the right move and he is convinced that the money problem can be solved. Why, for instance, shouldn't money be taken from the well-stocked pension reserve fund, Cayrol wonders. "If this succeeds, France would for the first time have a single pension system for the private and public sectors, with only minor exceptions. Despite everything, this would be remarkable," he says.
Macron is, however, taking a significant risk in trying to push through this reform. Already, the far-right populist Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National party are profiting from the protests. But unlike the clashes with the Yellow Vest movement, the president has this time delegated the crisis to his prime minister. In December, at the height of the strike, Macron traveled to the Ivory Coast for a state visit. Early last week, he joined five African heads of state in creating a new coalition for the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. He is, it would seem, eager to avoid the impression that this crisis is taking up all of his attention.
But the brunt of the blowback from the reform proposals still falls on Macron. It isn't Philippe's name that appears on most of the protesters' signs, but Macron's. In France, it's still the king who gets beheaded, not his adjutants.
Uniting an Archipelago
France is no longer a united, solidary republic, says Jérome Fourquet, but a fragmented kingdom of islands, an archipelago of sorts. Fourquet works at IFOP, the oldest polling agency in France. It's his job to measure the nation's sensitivities with a sober eye. More than half of all French people still support the protesters, Fourquet says, and two-thirds are dissatisfied with Macron.
Last year, he published a best-selling book about his archipelago theory. Fourquet attributes the division of the country into "many small and some large islands" to the diminishing importance of Catholicism. In the past, it was the Catholics versus the secularists -- just two camps, and everyone's positions were clear. You were either religious or you weren't. You were on the left or the right. Now, however, there's also a geographical fragmentation. Elites, Fourquet says, tend to live in big cities, while those people who fear change usually live in the countryside.
This phenomenon can also be observed in other Western democracies. "But in a republic where the Jacobian principle of social cohesion is ingrained in the DNA, this development destabilizes us more than it does our neighbors," Fourquet says.
Macron promised to unify the French prior to his election. "But how can he do that when he's dealing with an archipelago?" Fourquet says, adding that Macron's demeanor and style of government had also widened the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom of society.
All of the small, arrogant utterances that marked the early days of Macron's tenure as president still hang over him to this day. Early on, he displayed a habit of admonishing and rebuking citizens who tried to speak with him. And he made it clear to everyone that he expected them to work more. Macron changed his manner of speaking long ago, but his words have not been forgotten.
No Real Dialogue
On a Friday earlier this month, in a large room near Paris' Trocadero Square, the president visited for the first time a citizens' meeting on climate policy that he himself had initiated. A group of 150 randomly selected French people are in attendance to develop proposals for a more effective climate policy. If everything goes well, their work will ultimately result in draft legislation.
Long, white tables have been set up for the evening. Macron sits at one of them with a microphone in hand and, as usual, his cuffs sticking just a bit too far out of his jacket. First, he thanks the attendees for their service. "In our democracy, we don't involve citizens enough in the hunt for solutions," he says, adding that the time for small-scale decision-making is over. This has to do with the urgency of climate change, which he says requires the reaching of mutual agreements.
He also says he isn't here to talk for too long, but to have a conversation. Then comes a sentence that contradicts everything that the French have come to expect from their president: "On this evening, I'm a citizen like anybody else, like you."
Of course, a real dialogue never takes off. Those gathered read aloud polite, carefully articulated questions, while the president explains, instructs and lectures.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 4/2020 (January 11, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
The Foreign Policy Expert
A sense of urgency has been a leitmotif of Macron's presidency. His policies are guided by the conviction that action must be taken before it's too late. This goes for his approach to the climate, his reform program and his foreign policy agenda, at the center of which he envisions a confident Europe capable of holding its own against China and the U.S. in a new, bipolar world order.
European foreign policy is an issue near and dear to the French president. Ever since he had to relinquish his hope of strengthening Europe politically and militarily hand-in-hand with the German chancellor, he has been charging ahead on his own. He considers the challenges facing Europe to be too great to wait for the approval of each individual EU member state.
"He has a very dark vision of the world," says Sophie Pedder, a correspondent with the Economist in Paris. "He sees China's economic and political rise as an acute threat to the existing international order. On the other hand, there is Europe: lonely, battered and unable to act. Macron believes the current status quo poses a threat, while this status quo doesn't seem to worry Angela Merkel."
In late October, Pedder conducted an interview at the Élysée for the Economist. In it, Macron laid out his apocalyptic view of the world, declared NATO to be brain-dead and recommended a rapprochement with Russia. The interview was published two weeks later. During that interval, the Élysée had the recording: Macron's advisers knew full well what he had said.
Yet they did nothing to water down or change the controversial NATO comment. Nobody called the journalist. The provocation was no accident.
Going It Alone
Macron is not afraid to go it alone and does not shy away from forging new alliances to strengthen his influence. He's a realist, not an ideologue. In October, he received Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Paris with full military honors, a man whose authoritarian understanding of democracy Macron once sharply criticised. They spoke for two hours.
Last August, without first consulting any of his European allies, Macron invited Vladimir Putin to his vacation home on the Cote d'Azur -- the very man who has been working for years to drive a wedge between the Europeans. A G-7 summit took place a few days later in Biarritz, France, a group from which Russia has been excluded since it annexed Crimea in 2014. The French president wanted to talk informally with Putin about various issues that would be raised at the summit.
Macron believes that Russia must be brought into the European fold before it turns completely to China -- not least because Moscow has considerable influence in both Syria and Iran. Not talking to Russia would be a big mistake, Macron said during a conversation with journalists. In September, he sent his foreign and defense ministers to Moscow.
"Macron is stubborn. He really wants to change things," says Bruno Tertrais from the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. Tertrais considers Macron's approach to Russia to be too simplistic. He was an advisor to Macron during the 2017 election campaign -- one of many, he says modestly.
As a foreign policy expert, the president brings many talents with him, Tertrais says. This includes not only a coherent analysis of the international situation, which few heads of state are capable of, but also a gift for building close personal relationships with other leaders. This is, Tertrais continues, also how Macron has managed to keep open a channel of communication to U.S. President Donald Trump.
Another one of Macron's strengths, says Tertrais, is his energy and determination. "We are dealing with a president who wants to shape things," he says.
And if no one else is willing to help, Macron is happy to go it alone.