PARIS — Ahead of his state visit to Washington this week, French President Emmanuel Macron has attracted international praise for being the only European — perhaps even the only Western — head of state willing to confront head-on the rise of anti-democratic regimes.
“I do not want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers. I do not want to belong to a generation that will have forgotten its own past,” Macron said Tuesday in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
“Faced with the authoritarianism that surrounds us everywhere, the answer is not authoritarian democracy, but the authority of democracy,” he said, alluding to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s strongman prime minister who won a landslide reelection this month while seeking to silence all opposition.
But despite Macron’s rousing defense of democracy, within France the 40-year-old president is perceived as an especially monarchical figure — in a system where executive powers are already far more extensive than they are in virtually any other Western country. Critics say he governs by fiat and that his tenure has been marked by a troubling transition of France into what is essentially a one-party state.
Abroad, Macron is often viewed as a French Obama, a fresh face who uses his youthful energy to captivate audiences and urge action on climate change and other progressive policies. At home, he is widely seen as a sort of liberal strongman who has sought to curtail checks on his power — and may have some of the same governing tendencies as President Trump.
Macron’s party, Republic on the Move, or République En Marche, which he founded in 2016, holds an absolute majority of the 577 seats in the French National Assembly. What is more, Macron hand-selected those deputies, or lawmakers — many of whom were political novices — before their election, diminishing the likelihood any of them would ever contradict their leader, his opponents say.
“How can we imagine any opposition in Parliament when the deputies are all chosen by the president of the republic?” said Stéphane Le Foll, a Socialist deputy who served as a cabinet minister for Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande.
The situation presents a striking contrast to previous French Parliaments, when even those presidents with legislative majorities faced challenges from their allies. After Hollande proposed a controversial law in late 2015 that would have stripped French nationality from dual citizens convicted of terrorism, for instance, many in his own party turned against him, and the bill was ultimately abandoned.
“The executive weighs heavily on the expression of democracy in Parliament — that’s the reality of France today. The only election that matters is the presidency,” Le Foll said.
Even with that built-in loyalty, Macron is pushing a measure that would further reduce Parliament’s powers — in the name of fostering greater “efficiency” and “rationalization.”
According to a draft proposal of Macron’s bill obtained by Le Monde newspaper, the new legislation — to be considered by France’s Council of Ministers next month — would allow the executive branch to reject outright “proposals or amendments that are not within the realm of law” or are “devoid of normative scope.”
The French Parliament’s authority is not as wide-ranging as that of the U.S. Congress, and the French government occasionally challenges Parliament’s interpretation of its own authority. But it is France’s constitutional court that settles those disputes, large and small. Macron’s new bill would sidestep that process, giving the government the power to decide.
Legal scholars see the measure as an affront to the constitution of the Fifth Republic, the semi-
presidential system of government that has run the country since 1958.
“In this hyper-presidential regime,” said Patrick Weil, a French constitutional scholar, “Mr. Macron — not satisfied with a majority for the party that bears his own initials — now wants to reduce the powers of MPs to introduce amendments to bills and to take full control of the legislative process of the house. He wants to break a fundamental feature of all democracies, by attacking what remains in the French constitution of separation of powers.”
Macron’s party was initially called “En Marche,” which many in France interpreted to be a sign of his personal ambitions. The name was later officially modified.
The proposed law “will only reinforce the presidential preeminence, and the preeminence of the executive on French democracy,” Le Foll said. Of particular concern is that Macron’s bill — purportedly to streamline the process and keep budgets under control — would also reduce the number of deputies from 577 to 404 in the National Assembly, Parliament’s lower house, and from 348 to 243 in the Senate, the upper house. Critics say the result would be a decrease in democratic representation.
Exactly what most of the French think of these changes is difficult to say with certainty, but general distaste for Macron is growing.
Leftists and lower-income voters call the pro-business ex-investment banker “the president of the rich,” while journalists resent that he rarely gives news conferences and recently threatened to move the press room out of the Elysee Palace — a proposal he was forced to abandon.
In the throes of Macron’s wide-ranging overhauls to France’s public sector, for which he notably did not seek parliamentary approval, thousands have embarked on coordinated strikes, which have interrupted train and flight schedules for weeks. Retirees have voiced their anger at Macron’s vow to reduce their pensions, and students have likewise mobilized for protests that have begun to echo the uprisings of May 1968.
In the words of the left-wing journalist Edwy Plenel, who recently interviewed Macron — who was conspicuously without a tie — in a televised debate: “There is discontent everywhere.”
According to one poll released this past week, 52 percent of French voters described Macron’s election as a “bad thing.”
Another new poll found that only 42 percent of voters ultimately approve of his policies. But if there were to be another presidential election this month, Macron — despite the economic changes he has imposed and the crippling strikes they have inspired — would still win handily against Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate he defeated a year ago.
Macron remains a bulwark against the far-right. He is at once an avowed social democrat and perhaps the last vocal defender of a Western world order under siege from within and without.
“He’s a dam against the rise of illiberal democracy in Europe and in the world,” said Dominique Moïsi, a foreign policy expert who informally advised Macron’s presidential campaign last year. “He’s not a threat to democracy — he’s the last one to articulate a case for liberal classical democracy.”
Not all of his European counterparts see him this way. They dislike his plans to limit the French Parliament’s powers, but also a new security law that allows French police forces to arrest and detain suspects without judicial oversight.
“Where is ‘liberty’ when your citizens can be placed under house arrest and searched under mere suspicions of justice?” asked Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian deputy in the European Parliament, after Macron’s Tuesday address.
Macron — who once likened himself to “Jupiter,” the supreme god of the Roman pantheon and the unchallenged lord of the skies — did not hide his displeasure.
“In the name of the respect I have for this Parliament, I cannot allow you to say nonsense and untruths,” he said.