France's Macron enjoys popularity rise, faces new challenges
As French President Emmanuel Macron looks ahead to 2018, he finds himself back up in the polls and poised to face major challenges at home and in Europe.
Macron is wrapping up a remarkable year. In the seven months since he won a long-shot presidential bid, he has emerged as a key world leader at the forefront of the battles against terrorism and climate change.
Now the hard part seems to lie ahead: transforming France, where critics have branded him arrogant and authoritarian, with some saying he evokes a long-lost monarch.
After a rocky start on the domestic front, things are looking much better for the French president, the country's youngest leader since Napoleon, who turned 40 on Dec. 21.
A string of French polls show a clear surge in popularity in December, after last summer Macron's popularity fell to a near record low for a newly elected president.
Surveys by Ifop, BVA and Odoxa institutes showed a clear jump, with 52 percent of the French saying they are "satisfied" or have a "good opinion," of Macron, up some ten points from November and around 40 in September.
Macron, who himself admits he "came out of nowhere" to win over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, has since been on a parade of trips abroad while welcoming international visitors at home.
From his tense, white-knuckle handshake with President Donald Trump, to a major climate summit in Paris earlier this month, Macron has seized on the U.S. administration's focus on domestic issues to earn a prominent place on the international scene.
After Trump declared he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, Macron launched his "Make the Planet Great Again" initiative and called on U.S. researchers to come to France.
After the Brexit vote, he invited London-based international companies to move to Paris and toured many EU member states to promote his pro-European ideas.
He emerged as the most influential European leader this autumn, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was bogged down with months with coalition talks following an election.
He maintained France's military involvement in the battle against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and over 4,000 troops fighting extremism in Africa's Sahel region. More recently, he offered to be a mediator in Lebanon and Gulf crisis.
An in an unprecedented move from a French president, Macron tweets and speaks in English when addressing an international audience.
At home however, criticism is brewing.
During summer, he passed labor measures that have prompted demonstrations because they are perceived by many as weakening France's hard-won worker protection rights, driving his initial sharp drop in popularity.
He also passed a counterterrorism law despite critics who said it infringes on individual freedoms.
Now, Macron faces other challenges.
In Europe, divisions between EU member states and Germany could reduce the scope of reforms he has supported, including proposals on migration.
At home, his labor measures, notably aiming at easing hiring and firing, are expected to start producing effects next year, when he will launch another sensitive reform of unemployment benefits. The unemployment rate remains high in the country, at 9.7 percent.
He will also push for an immigration bill that would allow the government to send more illegal migrants back to their home countries —measures already denounced by human right groups.
Macron's main weakness might lie in his style, perceived by critics as arrogant and tyrannical. Some opposition members have labelled him 'president of the rich'.
A birthday celebration at the spectacular Chateau of Chambord in the Loire valley with his family in December has fuelled countless comments on social media about Macron's taste for royal symbols.
He has repeatedly prompted a public outcry with comments perceived as out of touch with the public. He once suggested employees of a struggling company should look for a job instead of protesting. In a speech to entrepreneurs this summer, he mentioned "people who succeed and people who are nobody."
Macron also carefully controls his communication, keeping as much distance as possible from journalists and only making a few, carefully chosen interviews, choices perceived by some as a lack of transparency. A carefully choreographed interview on state-owned France 2 television prompted some criticism on social media for its deferential tone.
Yet the public mood seems to be improving under Macron's watch. Gael Sliman, president of Odoxa poll institute, sees a direct link between Macron's recent rise in popularity and a stronger confidence of the French in the improvement of the economic situation.
State statistics agency Insee has raised its growth forecast for 2017 to 1.9 percent, the highest level in ten years.
Macron promised to cut taxes paid by businesses and employees by 10 billion euros ($11.9 billion) next year —while at the same time raising taxes on gasoline and cigarettes.
It's still early to judge the impact of Macron's changes — but with four years left as president, much remains to be seen.
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