Robert D. Zaretsky is a professor of modern European intellectual and cultural history at the University of Houston and the author of “Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, The Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment.”
“La rentrée” is an institution peculiar to France. Straddling the first days of September, “the return” marks the moment when the country shudders back to life after a long and lazy summer. Students return to school and parents return to work. If the French year begins in September, the writer Stephen Clarke acerbically noted, it ends in May.
This year, however, early September also marks the surprising return of Emmanuel Macron. At first glance, this is not surprising: After all, he is still president and has two more years on his lease to the Elysee Palace. Instead, what is surprising — and deeply reassuring — is his return to life as a political presence in France and Europe.
Such a rentrée seemed preposterous a year ago. Last year at this time, Macron was reaping the political storm he helped to create. The summer was one of partings, all bitter and none sweet. His most popular minister, green activist Nicolas Hulot, quit as minister of the environment, citing his inability to stem the influence of industrial and agribusiness lobbies on government policies. His second-most-popular minister, socialist Gérard Collomb, quit as interior minister, hinting at his inability to stomach Macron’s “lack of humility.” His universally unpopular bodyguard and adviser Alexandre Benalla was reluctantly shown to the door after being caught on video pummeling a protester during a street demonstration.
By last September, Macron’s favorability ratings were in free fall, with 7 out of 10 respondents expressing their dissatisfaction. Pundits dissected what they referred to as Macron’s “vertical” approach to leadership, while voters decried what they saw as his indifference or scorn. Fittingly, one newspaper described the month as Macron’s “Black September.”
And all of this was before the human tidal wave known as “les Gilets Jaunes,” or yellow vests, surged across France. What had begun as a protest movement over a proposed gasoline tax — proposed, ironically, by Hulot to transition the country to clean sources of energy — transmogrified into a massive expression of discontent with Macron himself. More than 300,000 protesters took to the streets in mid-November and, with growing violence, continued their weekly demonstrations through the winter. By year’s end, a clearly rattled Macron, with his favorable polling numbers skirting the abyss of 20 percent, conceded a number of economic measures, including tax reductions and a bump in the minimum wage.
More importantly, however, he also launched a “grand débat national” — something of a Hail Mary pass consisting of a long series of town halls across France held by government ministers. Though dismissed by critics as a public relations stunt, this exercise proved successful, though less as a means of political persuasion than as a show of political penance. Macron, in particular, was relentless, holding marathon sessions in small towns lasting several hours, at the end of which he was often the last man awake. Not only did he prove that he knew the ministerial dossiers better than his own ministers, but he also proved that he was willing to get to know the everyday lives and challenges of his fellow citizens.
During the summer months, Macron virtually vanished from view. At a news conference marking the end of his vacation, the president made clear that he had swapped verticality for horizontality, hubris for humility. Rather than posing as first in class, he was now first among equals. For the first time, he acknowledged the police had, at times, used excessive force against yellow vest demonstrators. Equally important, he insisted that he must be à l’écoute, or tuned in to the people. “We will overcome our challenges only by reconciling our differences and working together. … In order to succeed, we need to bring more Frenchmen and women along with us,” he said.
But as the subsequent Group of Seven meeting at Biarritz in August reminded French and foreign observers, horizontality is not the same as servility. Making good on a vow to devote his presidency to environmental challenges, Macron accused Brazil’s populist President Jair Bolsonaro of lying about his commitment to the environment in light of the rampaging fires in the Amazon. Bolsonaro’s subsequent insult of Brigitte Macron on Facebook, and Macron’s sharp reply, bolstered both popular sympathy and respect.
As for President Trump, Macron lavished him with attention but was never slavish, underscored by his surprise invitation to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Zarif’s presence in Biarritz was hailed by the French media as a triumph, while Macron’s speech to the French from Biarritz was yet another sign of being à l’écoute. The immediate payback has been relatively impressive: According to recent polls, nearly 40 percent of respondents now approve of Macron, hailing in particular his defense of France’s interests on the global stage.
Inevitably, nothing is inevitable in politics. It remains to be seen whether Macron holds to his pledge of modesty and dialogue or reverts to his predilection for arrogance and monologue. At the very least, though, this much is certain: At a time when Britain and the United States seem to have lost their way, France has become an unexpected source of democratic stability under Macron. The comeback kid who still embodies the one of the last great hopes for liberal democracy could not have returned to the world stage at a more critical moment.