Just when it looked like France’s Emmanuel Macron had weathered the storm that’s been battering his presidency for the past three months, new allegations from an old scandal have surfaced, raising questions about Macron’s level of exposure. They add to the trouble Macron still faces from the Yellow Vest movement, which though reduced in numbers, has been distilled to a resilient and hardened base of support. While the movement no longer poses a direct threat to his political survival, it is now Macron’s reaction to the protests that could undermine his legitimacy.
By early December, the spontaneous emergence, rapid growth and virulence of the Yellow Vest protest movement raised fears within Macron’s government that it could crystallize into a broader insurrection. Security officials reportedly even saw fit to dust off plans to secure the president, first lady and aides in Elysee Palace’s safe room in the event the presidential office and residence were breached. Over the course of those first few weeks, Macron himself seemed stunned and unable to formulate an appropriate response or reaction to the violence on display at the weekly Saturday mobilizations, directed at him personally as well as at symbols of the French state, like the Arc de Triomphe.
After a moment of paralysis, Macron and his Cabinet retreated, rescinding the fuel tax that had ostensibly triggered the protests, then sought to buy off the demonstrators with various subsidies, one-time bonuses and changes to the tax code in an effort to restore order. These moves, combined with a drop in support for the protests due to their shocking level of violence, provided the space Macron needed to dive into action, albeit action in a postmodern sense: a listening tour.
Calling for a nation-wide grand debate, Macron led things off with a series of marathon dialogue sessions with local mayors, taking hours of pointed questions and responding in thorough detail to policy questions great and small. In rolled-up shirt-sleeves and without any notes, Macron did what he does best: convince his listeners that he knows as much, if not more, about their problems as they do, and that he has at least thought deeply about how to solve them.
At a time when know-nothing-ism has gone global and anti-elitism has become a winning political strategy, it was an impressive demonstration of the value of expertise and serious policy analysis. And the results, in terms of Macron’s approval ratings, were immediately obvious. Within a month, he had regained the support he lost at the height of the Yellow Vest protests, and his presidency, which at one point appeared to be in peril, got a second chance at life.
But while the immediate danger of the Yellow Vest movement might have receded, it has not disappeared. Though down from their peak of several hundred thousand demonstrators nationwide each weekend, the protests still mobilize tens of thousands every Saturday. The demands have always been wildly diverse, but the common thread remains a virulent hatred of Macron and an equally virulent rejection of his legitimacy. And while the violence and vandalism that accompanies the marches is the work of a small minority, it is a persistent and constant feature.
Mindful of his responsibility to maintain social order, Macron seems to have chosen an overly repressive stance that could prove costly.That initially caused many soft sympathizers of the movement to lose patience with it. But the repetitive nature of the violence now calls into question the state’s ability to deliver on one of its fundamental responsibilities, namely to maintain social order and protect its citizenry. A continued failure to do so would therefore put the government’s legitimacy at risk.
Mindful of this, however, Macron and his government seem to have chosen the opposite extreme: an overly repressive stance that could also prove costly. After the first three weekend protests, in which the scale of the violence caught the authorities by surprise, French security forces adopted more assertive and mobile tactics, combined with massive force mobilizations that, with the Yellow Vest movement now waning, mean the riot police often outnumber the protesters nationwide. In addition to these more effective measures, though, French security forces have also made liberal use of stun grenades and rubber-ball launchers that have caused gruesome injuries among protesters, eliciting outrage and condemnation from rights advocates in France.
In between the weekly protests, the police also began targeting some of the protest leaders for arrest and detention, and the government passed a law ostensibly meant to prevent violence by the protest hooligans known as “casseurs.” But the arrests led to claims of harassment, and the anti-casseur law included expansive measures, such as allowing government-appointed local prefects to prohibit individuals from protesting and banning face-coverings at demonstrations, that many—including 50 members of Macron’s parliamentary majority who abstained from the final vote—argue could be abused to clamp down on political dissent. The result is that, after several weeks in which the movement seemed to be in terminal decline, the Yellow Vests now seem to have achieved a reduced but steady state.
It was against this backdrop that a new wrinkle in an old scandal surfaced, raising more questions about the Macron protege at its center and underlining Macron’s penchant for heavy-handedness. Alexandre Benalla, Macron’s former head of security, was forced to resign last July after footage emerged of him shoving and striking a protester while assisting police in arresting a young couple at a demonstration against Macron’s labor reforms. Benalla had no legal justification for being present at the protest or for assuming a law enforcement role there. At the time, the fact that the footage had become known to the Elysee Palace in May, when the incident occurred, led to widespread speculation of a cover-up. The 26-year-old Benalla’s mysterious rise within Macron’s inner circle also elicited curiosity, as did his self-confident standoffs with the Senate commission that subsequently investigated the matter.
The incident left a host of unanswered questions, but it faded from view until several months ago, when reports surfaced of Benalla traveling to Africa on diplomatic passports as a fixer for various business interests. Then last week, the French investigative news site Mediapart published the transcripts of an audio recording it had gotten hold of, in which Benalla discusses a private contract he secured jointly with a colleague to provide security for a Russian oligarch’s Paris-based family. The million-euro contract, as well as a second one for a similar sum that he arranged for another Russian billionaire, apparently overlapped with his time at the Elysee Palace. The recorded discussion took place in the residence of the French prime minister’s head of security, who resigned after the article appeared. To make matters even worse, a French investigative judge sought to search the offices of Mediapart to determine how they had obtained the audio recording, setting off a firestorm of criticism and reviving criticism of both Macron’s hostile relationship with the press and his authoritarian instincts.
Macron, who seemed to be regaining his footing, now faces a host of embarrassing questions regarding what he knew about Benalla’s lucrative side-business and when. Worse still might be the claim that a president who prides himself on having all the answers could have been so clueless about the machinations of such a close aide. It would be the latest of many paradoxes for Macron, a master communicator prone to tone-deaf public remarks and a brilliant policy analyst with political instincts that border on the suicidal.
Progress PalmSprings is senior researcher and fellow with the PalmSprings Institute of International Affairs, based in Johannesburg. He is also concurrently a TV Producer for a plethora of Current Affairs shows with a reach of 790 million viewers on LoveWorldSAT.By Progress PalmSprings