Macron under fire over defence spending, tax cuts and leadership style
When the French president Emmanuel Macron donned an airforce uniform and boarded a military jet on Thursday, stressing his respect for the armed forces, it was his first big damage-limitation exercise as president.
While he has spent recent weeks polishing his international image – entertaining the US president, Donald Trump, and holding forth at major summits – difficulties on the domestic front have begun to show.
His first major crisis came this week when the head of the French armed forces resigned after a bitter row with Macron over cuts to defence spending.
It was an unprecedented standoff which one general blamed on what he called Macron’s “juvenile authoritarianism”.
The last time Macron donned military uniform, he was photographed being winched in action man-style on to a nuclear submarine from a helicopter.
This time, it was less about physical bravado and more about humble pie.
The 39-year-old leader, who once suggested a French president should have a lofty approach akin to Jupiter, the Roman god of gods, was described by his critics as being forced down to Earth to face France’s tricky economic reality.
The row with France’s military chief has its roots in the difficult equation Macron is trying to strike.
He wants to deliver both substantial tax cuts and reductions to public spending while respecting EU rules on budget deficits.
Despite a solid international standing and a large parliamentary majority, it is clear that the profound “transformation” he has promised France is not going to be easy.
The centrist Macron came to power not only on a promise of political renewal, he also promised a raft of tax cuts.
Many were aimed at the rich, including reining in the wealth tax as well as cutting charges for businesses, which he argued would restore competitiveness and boost jobs.
Indeed a study this week found that the richest 10% of France’s households will probably benefit the most from his proposed tax cuts.
Other tax cuts were aimed at lower incomes, including his flagship manifesto promise to scrap local housing taxes for 80% of households.
But when Macron’s prime minster, Édouard Philippe, set out the government’s roadmap earlier this month, the message was that France was so in debt that the promised tax cuts needed to be gently pushed onto the back burner.
Macron wants France to meet EU rules on bringing down the budget deficit for the first time in a decade. And that means belt-tightening.
But there was outrage at the prospect of broken tax promises.
Macron understood the danger.
After all, he had served as an advisor to the dithering, zigzagging former president François Hollande whose tax muddles plunged him into the depths of unpopularity.
Macron likes to be seen to act fast on criticism.
So he did a swift U-turn. He said the tax cuts would begin to come into force from next year.
The problem, not always addressed in France, is how to pay for them.
Suddenly, the government needed to find spending cuts and sprang them on unsuspecting ministries – the controversial military cuts were just one.
It was all the more surprising after Macron’s long-term promise to significantly boost military spending.
The army is by far the most-loved institution in France and Macron has now promised spending increases for next year.
The full detail on all spending cuts will come in the autumn, just as plans take shape on Macron’s proposed loosening of labour laws to make it easier to hire and fire workers – a contentious issue which could bring street protests.
It is not just budget balancing acts that are a challenge for Macron.
His personal presidential style is being increasingly scrutinised.
The Jupiter analogy is proving troublesome.
Although Macron’s approval ratings remain comparatively high at 54%, he slipped five points this month in one BVA poll for La Tribune.
Respondents with a poor opinion of Macron cited his perceived “arrogance”, “authoritarianism”, “disregard for the working classes” and excessive attention to his own image.
Now Macron wants to be quick to shed the Jupiter label.
This week he made a surprise visit to parliamentarians from his new party, La République en Marche, and assured them he would not be issuing so-called “Jupiter-like” orders from above.
He added: “There will be difficult debates.
They will be budgetary, they will be human.
We will have to negotiate between two solutions and choose the lesser evil.”