Emmanuel Macron is fighting to keep the shine on his embattled presidency this week after figures showed his much-vaunted reforms had failed to raise low growth or reduce high taxes, undermining his efforts to entice banks and businesses to relocate to France after Brexit.
The French president’s credibility, battered by his handling of the scandal over a rogue bodyguard, is now under assault from France’s conservative opposition amid widespread discontent over continuing high unemployment.
The conservative newspaper Le Figaro declared “The End of a Mirage,” in a front-page editorial attacking Mr Macron following a week of disappointing economic numbers that revealed second quarter growth of just 0.2 per cent.
“There has been no miracle,” the paper declared. “The evils that have undermined France for so long — lack of competitiveness, weakness in public finances, rigidities of all kinds — have not disappeared.”
Le Figaro attributed France’s economic rebound after last year’s election to “Europe’s economic dynamism and a catch-up effect on growth, rather than the famous Macron effect and magical measures.”
Mr Macron has introduced tax breaks for expatriate staff who relocate to France. He has eased restrictive labour laws and lowered punitive tax rates on investment income. But he will still have to demonstrate greater economic improvement to attract more international investment and business.
Many dreamed of an end to the exodus of talented graduates and entrepreneurs as France youngest president, now 40, set about reviving its long stagnant economy.
But on Wednesday the French learned that unemployment had started rising again during the spring. More bad news came on Friday, with the revelation that the economy had grown by only 0.2 per cent during the second quarter following a sluggish performance during the winter.
And the Molinari Economic Institute, a free-market think tank, released figures suggesting that France is the highest-taxed EU country.
Christine Lavarde, a senator from the conservative opposition party, The Republicans, said only three other EU countries now have higher unemployment than France.
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“The position of the other Eurozone countries is improving while France is stagnating,” said Ms Lavarde, a member of a cross-party parliamentary committee tasked with formulating economic proposals for the government.
“The improvement in the economic cycle hid the absence of structural reforms for several years.”
Even before the outrage over Alexandre Benalla, the president’s bodyguard, Mr Macron’s poor approval ratings suggested that many voters were losing confidence in him.
Yet there was a glimmer of good news for the president yesterday (Sat). A poll indicated a two-point rise in his popularity to 40 per cent. Nevertheless, the overall trend is still downward. His approval rating first sank below 50 per cent in May.
The Benalla crisis will pass. Mr Macron’s image may even recover, but the feel-good bubble that surrounded his election victory has burst.
During a trip to Portugal and Spain this week, Mr Macron shrugged off the Benalla scandal as “a storm in a teacup.
It nevertheless overshadowed his efforts to stem Europe’s populist wave, which has brought eurosceptics to power in Italy, with anti-immigrant parties in government in Austria, Hungary and Poland.
Mr Benalla gave a TV interview on Friday evening, wearing a suit and spectacles as he denied striking a protester, despite video evidence.
He acknowledged that he had “betrayed” Mr Macron with what he said was a “vigorous” response to protesters’ attacks on police, but denied breaking the law.
Yet Mr Macron may still be France’s best hope. Le Figaro urged him to press on “and even accelerate reforms in the hope that positive effects are felt soon.”
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