July 21, 2017 / 9:07 AM / 5 months ago

France's Macron treads fine line in showing he's the boss

PARIS (Reuters) - In Emmanuel Macron’s traditional presidential portrait destined to adorn town halls across France, a pair of iPhones and a copy of national hero Charles de Gaulle’s memoirs lie on his desk.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron listens as Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo delivers her speech during a ceremony at the Hotel de Ville in Paris, France, May 14, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

The photograph is meant to portray a young, modern leader who is also the heir of the general who led resistance to Nazi Germany in World War Two and founded the Fifth Republic in 1958.

Cultivating this image from day one of his presidency, Macron rode up the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on May 14 in a military jeep instead of the traditional limousine.

He later tweeted a picture of himself being lowered on a winch into a nuclear submarine, and this week forced his military chief of staff to quit for criticizing budget cuts.

Macron used the departure of General Pierre de Villiers to show he will brook no dissent from those around him and the depth of his resolve to enforce public spending discipline.

But his action has alarmed military chiefs and highlighted a risk that his strategy could backfire by making him look authoritarian, over-controlling and oversensitive to criticism.

“Emmanuel Macron is very keen to take on the clothes of General de Gaulle, he has understood very early on what he had to gain from a personal investment in the military field,” Jerome Fourquet of pollster Ifop told Reuters.

“But although he has scored points on the international scene and domestically by showing there’s a man at the helm, it’s unclear whether public opinion will consider this episode as an example of his capacity to decide, or a case of authoritarianism and an admission of weakness.”

“JUPITERIAN”

Macron, a centrist, has deliberately chosen a style that sets him apart from predecessors who, according to his staff, he believes had deeply flawed presidencies -- Socialist Francois Hollande and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy.

Hollande portrayed himself as the “normal president” during his 2012-2017 term but many voters thought his approachability made him look weak.

Voters’ memories of the “hyper-president” style adopted by Sarkozy, who preceded Hollande, and widespread dislike of his impulsive and sometimes brash personality scuppered his chances of re-election.

Macron, 39, has reduced interaction with the media, scrapping the off-the-record chats which Hollande liked and cancelling the television interview the president traditionally gives on Bastille Day, France’s national day.

“We don’t want to shut down, but we think responsibility does not necessarily come with what I won’t call transparency, but what I will call a total unveiling of the president’s each and every move,” a source close to Macron said.

On the sidelines of summits, Macron has also refused to answer questions about judicial investigations targeting his ministers. Instead, he tweets and broadcasts videos on Facebook Live that have been filmed by his own media team.

“We’ve gone from the extreme permissiveness of Hollande -- during whose term the Elysee was a bit like an open house for the media -- to the exact opposite with Macron, who wants extreme control of every content that comes out of the Elysee,” said Thomas Guenole, a political analyst with Sciences-Po university in Paris.

Though he made his name as Hollande’s economy minister by speaking out of turn and outside his brief, he has muzzled his own ministers. They rarely appear on television and do not respond to reporters waiting in the Elysee palace courtyard after weekly cabinet meetings, rushing into their chauffeured cars without a word.

Macron has even proofread some ministers’ interviews for the press, including one by his veteran foreign minister, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

He has also decided to cap the number of staff each minister can have at 10, curtailing the ministers’ political autonomy and forcing them to rely more on bureaucrats.

“Staff members are a minister’s army. He has sucked out all that was political in politics, the technocracy has tightened its grip,” a former Socialist government advisor told Reuters.

Macron has also launched a review of the top 180 heads of administrative departments, who may be asked to go before the end of year.

PARADOX

To be sure, although his team was drawn from across the political spectrum, Macron has avoided the public disagreements between ministers that marred Hollande’s first years in office.

He has broadly reconciled company bosses with the government and talks on pro-business labor reform have run smoothly so far, without the violent public protests seen under Hollande.

The public has welcomed his performances on the world stage -- from a public rebuke to U.S. President Donald Trump over climate policy to his decision to host him for Bastille Day and hold a lavish reception for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But critics see a danger in what they regard as the over-centralization of power in the president’s hands and weak checks and balances in a country where the executive holds sway over parliament and the press is sometimes seen as deferential.

Hollande’s last hopes of winning a second term were ended by a series of interviews with two journalists which were published as a book, “A President Shouldn’t Say That”. Co-author Fabrice Lhomme says Macron may have gone too far in the other direction.

“That’s the paradox of ‘Macronism’: he embodies novelty -- by his age, the path he has taken -- but conversely he uses methods from another era,” Lhomme told Reuters.

“He runs the risk of isolation, that of a man who exercises power with only a few close advisers, who doesn’t listen to contradiction. He could run into trouble, not immediately but in a couple of years, when he’s cut off from reality.”

A BVA poll published this week showed Macron’s popularity rating was down 5 points on a month earlier to 54 percent.

“His Jupiterian approach is perceived by some as a monarchical drift,” the pollster wrote, adding a warning that those against Macron had criticized his “arrogance, authoritarianism, and contempt for the working class.”

Reporting by Michel Rose, additional reporting by Marine Pennetier and John Irish, Editing by Timothy Heritage

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