If the rise of the National Front is the most visible sign of the decay of French democracy, then the nation’s muted response to President Emmanuel Macron’s first year in office feels no less symptomatic. Nor, perhaps, is it any less worrisome. Whatever one’s opinion of them, the unprecedented slate of reforms being overseen by the forty-year-old former investment banker is happening at a quicker rate than under any of his predecessors. So far, they’ve been met with a collective shrug.
Protests against the new pro-business labor law didn’t evolve into a larger mass movement. For the moment, neither have demonstrations against university reforms that introduce restrictive admission procedures. In the meantime, a budget that slashed wealth and capital-gains taxes breezed through Parliament without much popular backlash. Amidst all this, the president’s approval ratings briefly sank to near Trumpian levels, only to rise again. Just about half the country now expresses confidence in Macron, according to polls.
This rebound is impressive by French standards. Predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy both saw their poll numbers gradually sink over the course of their presidencies and never regained momentum. Macron is a far better politician than either. With a blend of smarts, savvy, and oratorical prowess that most budding politicos only dream of, he has an uncanny way of appeasing people across the political spectrum.
Still, it is important not to mistake apathy for active approval. While millions voted for the president against his proto-fascist opponent last spring (and millions would undoubtedly do so again), only about a quarter or so of them are true believers. The most fervent and powerful of the lot can be found in the sort of Parisian neighborhoods frequented by foreign journalists—the reliably bourgeois arrondisements of the Left Bank and northwestern parts of the Right Bank—giving many of these scribes an exaggerated sense of his appeal. (In general, non-French speakers hoping to follow developments deserve better: For instance, while it is encouraging that the city’s New York Times correspondent is able to communicate with presidential security guards in their mother tongue, is that fact really worth bragging about in a news story?) For most French people, Macronism is a thing happening in the background of their lives, the exact opposite of the political hyper-sensitivity Trumpism has imposed on the other side of the Atlantic. If you start talking about a random member of cabinet at a bar in Paris (the sort that foreign journalists don’t go to, of course) your fellow patron will most likely roll his or her eyes; they do not begin violently shaking their head and fill with rage as they do in New York.
At its most basic level, the disengagement flows from an institutional problem. Many voters were disillusioned after the presidential election that brought Macron to power and didn’t show up for the legislative elections one month later in June. Indeed, those contests featured the lowest such turnout levels in the history of the Fifth Republic. As a result, Macron now benefits from a parliamentary supermajority, a rubber-stamp National Assembly that doesn’t resemble the country’s actual political breakdown. Few would dispute the fact that the opposition is weak. But even under conservative estimates, Macron’s opponents represent a much larger share of the population than the mere one-fifth of seats they currently hold in the lower chamber.
French voters got what they deserved, you might say. Either way, it makes for a very dull political climate—one whose deliberations seem more befitting of a Fortune 500 company or a semi-authoritarian state than those of a thriving republic. The executive introduces reforms, people discuss them, but everyone already knows the outcome in advance. Why bother?