The Dwindling Popularity of President Macron
The popularity of President Macron is dwindling. That’s not unusual after elections. Many other (French) presidents have seen their popularity go down in the first months in office. But with president Macron there is something peculiar going on. We all remember his spectacular victory. Europe was excited. Macron had stopped populism in its worst form. For sure Macron was the better outcome compared to the dark alternative. As a political outsider he had left the traditional parties behind with his movement En Marche. He seemed to be the voice of reason in a time that reason had lost ground.
But then he did something peculiar. In his search for budgetary cuts, he reduced the defence budget. In itself that is not something strange. But what is peculiar is how he dealt with dissenting voices, or notably one dissenting voice. General Pierre De Villiers was against this budget cut and had voiced this. This was not to the liking of President Macron, who used the power argument. He said that he was the boss and if someone did not agree with the boss, the this person should go.
A matter of Trust
This is an issue because it is contradictory to the style Macron had promised, one of dialogue. With this argument he has killed dialogue and he has won on power. But power is very erosive. To maintain power you need to use it. And using power is not very sustainable. Because people get numb. Or they will find a way to evade. And if the latter happens the only thing a leader can do, is install more control. If there’s more control, there is less trust. If there’s less trust, people will adapt their behaviour to that.
The question is if president Macron is trustworthy. Trustworthiness is a matter of competence (can he do the job), loyalty (does he act on our behalf) and integrity (does he walk the talk).
The natural weakness of president Macron lies in the first element, competence. He has hardly any experience. People voted for him in spite of the lack of competence, and probably because of the integrity he has shown. Other candidates were burdoned with scandals or cumbersome proposals. In the first weeks after the elections he has shown competence. The way he has handled Trump instills trust. But the way he has handled the military does not.
In terms of loyalty president Macron will face other issues. The reform of the French labour market comes up and many employed and unemployed citizens will see this is an attack on their interests, therefore they will see it as disloyal. This is always tricky in politics. you can never satisfy everybody, but you need to satisfy enough people. In these VUCA-times politicians need to take decisions not on behalf of the people of. today, but on behalf of the people of the generations to come. The tension between short and long term thinking is difficult to handle. We will see how he will handle this.
And in terms of integrity, the first cracks in the mirror are visible. President Macron has handled the defence crisis in an authoritarian way, in contrast with his promise. And he has also summoned both houses of parliament together in Versailles. This is only done in times of crisis (the Paris Attacks, the economic crisis, …). But he just presented his policies. Doing this he has put his prime minister, the head of the government, in his shadow. The way he solemnly strode through the corridors of Versailles and inspected the guards, has given the impression of some vanity. Maybe the situation was overwhelming, but it was his decision to organise this gathering in a place that resonates monarchy, enlightened despotism and suppression of the masses. It was very un-republican. People called him le roi soleil afterwards. Not good. So he needs to restore this.
Protect and Build Leadership through Character
So Macron has to protect and build his leadership and he has to descend from his virtual throne to create trust. That’s his only capital. This means he needs to let go of the power arguments. Actually, if he does well people will give him the authority automatically. Now he seems to take the power. So dialogue, narratives, openness, humility, kindness, empathy, fairness and reciprocity are the answers to the question how he can protect and build his leadership and make it more sustainable. He has to use his character as basis for his political leadership.
So everybody knows that the mission ahead is difficult. But he must make clear that his mission is in the interest of everyone (or at least most of the nation). Leadership is about creating motion towards value. The fuel of that motion is trust. And there will be trust if people realise the president is at the service of all citizens and of a greater task.
Telling someone they have to do it because you’re the boss is never a good idea. Macron is teaching us that power, position or popularity are not the foundations for sustainable leadership. Character is.
In my book “Sustainable Leadership. How to Lead in A Vuca World, I describe how leaders can make sure their leadership can be sustainable. It can only be sustainable when it is based on character. The book describes how leaders can build and protect character from what I call erosive forces. It also explains how leaders can use character to build a context of trust, meaningfulness, development and engagement. You can find more info about the book here.