In his first year in office, French President Emmanuel Macron has had some big wins — he’s changed labour rules to make hiring and firing easier, stared down unions to overhaul the state-run rail company and tamed the budget deficit for the first time in a decade.
But there is one area in which the restless 40-year-old is having less success — his sometimes abrasive manner seems to be rubbing French voters and some foreign leaders up the wrong way.
In the past two weeks, his sharp tongue and tendency to lecture have provoked a diplomatic spat with Italy and drawn criticism at home, after he scolded a schoolboy for speaking to him in a familiar tone.
A poll last week showed his popularity falling to just 40 percent, the latest of several to show a drop.
The dispute with Italy, after Macron accused Rome’s new government of “cynicism and irresponsibility” for refusing to take in a ship carrying migrants, has been papered over for now. But it will be on minds when EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday to debate the migration crisis.
He appeared to refer to Italy again last week, saying Europe needed to fight the “leprosy” of populism springing up “in countries where we thought it would be impossible to see again”.
Italy’s deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio, whose 5-Star Movement is part of the anti-establishment coalition that recently took power, called the comments “offensive and out of place”.
Macron has also hinted at Hungary and Poland in his criticism of nationalist trends in Europe, saying: “We’re getting used to the extremes in countries who for years had been pro-European like us.”
“CALL ME SIR”
In many respects, the French leader has been a breath of fresh air, tackling issues with an energy that reflects his past as an investment banker.
But his can-do attitude often spills over into pressure on others to match him, and when challenged his instinct is to put people in their place.
When a schoolboy called out “Ca va, Manu?” (How’s it going, Manu?) during a ceremony in northern France last week, Macron upbraided him, saying: “No, no, no. You address me as Mr President of the Republic or ‘sir’.
“You need to do things the right way,” he continued. “Even if you want to lead a revolution one day, you’ve got to earn a diploma first and learn how to put food on the table.”
It was not the first time Macron has been captured chiding those he perceives to have disrespected him.
As economy minister before his presidential bid, a man in a t-shirt accused him of being a rich guy in a suit. “The best way to pay for a suit is to get a job,” snapped back Macron.
After cutting a wealth tax and taking other steps favourable to business, Macron has been labelled “president of the rich”. His efforts to shake off the tag weren’t helped by the release of a video by his office showing Macron berating his team for a speech on welfare reform.
“We’re spending a ton of cash,” on benefits, he complained, “but the poor are still poor.”
Those comments, and others going back months in which he berates strikers for “kicking up a bloody mess” and talks about “slackers”, have shaped people’s views.
The poll last weekend was the latest to show his popularity waning even though France’s economy is performing steadily and foreign investment is rising.
“There’s a feeling that the head of state is out of touch,” pollster Frederic Dabi told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.