When Emmanuel Macron launched En Marche four years ago, he described the idea of a new political movement that was “neither right nor left” as “a bit mad” and said he did not know if it would succeed.
A year later, the upstart group that became La République en Marche (LREM) succeeded handsomely. It helped Mr Macron secure the French presidency in May 2017 and then crushed the established parties of left and right to win an outright majority in the National Assembly, with many of those elected under its banner new to politics.
Today, however, these once-fervent Macron supporters are feeling the strain of three years in power. Many fear that the president’s earlier achievements, including a decline in unemployment and tighter control of public spending, are being obscured by a pandemic that has killed nearly 29,000 people in France and is plunging the economy into its deepest recession since the second world war.
“It’s very sad,” said Annie Vidal, an LREM member of parliament from Seine-Maritime, north west of Paris. “We were starting to see results in terms of economic recovery, with more jobs in industry and good financial trends.”
With a month to go before the delayed second round of France’s local elections on June 28, and two years before the next presidential and parliamentary polls, Mr Macron’s party is fraying at the edges, weakened by the president’s declining popularity.
Agnès Buzyn, the former health minister who is Mr Macron’s candidate for Paris mayor, has virtually no chance of winning the city after falling behind the Socialist incumbent Anne Hidalgo and centre-right candidate Rachida Dati in the first round in March.
In Lyon, the incumbent mayor and LREM candidate Gérard Collomb, a former Socialist who was one of Mr Macron’s earliest converts, has abandoned the race and thrown in his lot with the centre-right to keep the greens from power. In Marseille, the LREM candidate performed poorly in the first round.
At the same time, disgruntled LREM deputies in the National Assembly have formed two new parliamentary groups, one that is promoting green and leftwing policies and another that leans towards economic liberalism. The splits technically deprive the governing party of its majority, although the defectors insist they are not joining the opposition.
“It shows that what was a sort of consensus was not hard at all but was a soft consensus around Macron, and it’s now divided,” said political analyst Vincent Martigny.
Ms Vidal, a Macron loyalist, said she did not understand the defectors and insisted that many voters approved of the president’s handling of the crisis, even if extremist politicians were exploiting people’s fears to whip up opposition to his leadership.
Bruno Bonnell, a tech entrepreneur and MP for Villeurbanne near Lyon, said there was “incredible distortion” between Mr Macron’s achievements — successfully negotiating with Germany for an EU economic recovery fund, for example — and a public image damaged by mistrust over problems such as medical equipment shortages.
“I think he’s doing it right, but through the Franco-French prism we are arguing about masks, tests and so on,” he said.
Alexandra Louis, a lawyer elected as one the four LREM MPs in Marseille in 2017, said “democratic exhaustion” predated the Macron era and that the angry confrontations highlighted on social media did not reflect what she saw on the ground.
“I’m not convinced that people have changed that much in their view of politics since the start of this mandate,” she said. Ms Louis has joined an association of politicians and citizens called “En Commun” (Together) to generate “constructive” ideas the government could adopt to protect the environment and reduce inequality.
The political danger for LREM now is that Mr Macron — having already alienated many of his erstwhile supporters on the left with his economic reforms — may antagonise the greens and the liberal right with insufficiently radical environmental or economic solutions to deal with the impact of the pandemic.
Vehicle sales are a case in point, with Mr Macron offering state subsidies for the purchase of traditional, carbon-emitting cars as well as electric ones in order to reduce the car industry’s stockpile of half a million unsold units.
“The lockdown has opened to the door to all the old lobbies,” said Mr Bonnell. “Looking at the proposals for the relaunch of the economy, none is new or original — it’s trying to stimulate demand by promotions and discounts. It means you don’t really ask the true questions about how you change the world.”
Mr Bonnell, who belongs to the crop of political newcomers elected to parliament in LREM’s landslide victory three years ago, added: “Is Macron the first of a new generation, as he was hoping, or the last of the old generation? I don’t have the answer.”
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