Last week, during a trip to Bucharest, Romania, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that "France isn't a reformable country. Many have tried; they didn't succeed, because the French detest reforms." He did say, however, that the country was "transformable."
Watching the speech, I sensed that Macron was frustrated. The abrupt gesture he made -- as if he were swatting at a pesky fly with the back of his hand -- when he referred to "the people" and their rejection of change drew widespread criticism. I didn't see contempt, but rather exasperation.
Macron also conveyed vulnerability with his semantic gymnastics and agitation. The leftist sharks have been circling, and now they have drawn blood. While it's just a drop, one can't forget that this is France -- a country with a history of bloody leftist revolution. It doesn't take much to start a feeding frenzy.
Macron and his majority government have introduced and passed a flurry of reforms since taking power in June: everything from increasing government transparency to reducing corruption to making the French labor market more meritocratic and globally competitive. This week, Macron is tackling immigration by meeting with European and African leaders in Paris to seek a solution to the flood of asylum seekers coming to Europe.
Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the far-left France Insoumise party, has whined about having to work evenings and delay his month-long, taxpayer-funded vacation because he must perform the laborious task of voting in parliament. He's singing the "hands off my entitlements" tune that so many French citizens know by heart.
A new French Public Opinion Institute poll shows that Melenchon is considered the most viable opposition leader in France, even though his party and its French Communist Party allies hold only 27 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. Blame the power vacuum on the other party leaders, who are still stumbling around and trying to figure out their identity after voters subjected them to an electoral pummeling a few months ago. When faced with a choice between the same old unproductive leftist rhetoric and changes that might pull the country out of the downward spiral it's been in for so long, the French apparently would rather cling to the familiar comfort of continued demise.
The French actually do want change and renewal, but they want it to occur by magic. They mistake their presidents for Houdini.
Since he took office in May, Macron's approval rating has dropped from 62 percent to 40 percent. Over the same honeymoon period, former center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy's approval rating rose from 65 percent to 69 percent, and yet the system chewed up Sarkozy and spit him out. Like Macron, Sarkozy had also hoped to unshackle the country from its deeply entrenched socialist infrastructure. He ultimately failed, as his enthusiasm faded over his five-year term, and he seemed resigned to a fate of political impotence. His 2012 loss to Socialist Francois Hollande mostly erased whatever had remained of Sarkozy's policies.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said of her free-market reform agenda, "Yes, the medicine is harsh, but the patient requires it in order to live." She fired Cabinet ministers who disagreed with her actions. She survived an assassination attempt by terrorists. She dug in her heels and didn't budge -- much like U.S. President Donald Trump is doing in the face of opposition from the left. This is the only way to win.
Legendary statesmen -- from Thatcher to Ronald Reagan to Winston Churchill -- all faced staunch opposition before their actions bore fruit. Macron's mistake would be to back down as the battle for France's survival gets underway.
Melenchon has already called for a September 23 protest against what he describes as a "social coup d'etat by Emmanuel Macron," echoing his previous calls for a "moral insurrection" against Macron's reforms. For leftists, democracy only exists when they're in charge -- even if it means hijacking the agenda of a democratically elected president and government. The far left will always attempt to use the citizenry as a human shield against rational action, hoping to woo enough pawns with their emotionally charged wailing.
Macron has no choice but to keep forging ahead and seizing every opportunity to change French mindsets. France is the nervous swimmer who stands paralyzed on the high diving board, afraid to take the plunge. If you give him a shove and he's forced into the water, he might yell at you all the way down, but he'll be proud of his achievement by the time he bobs back up to the surface. France badly needs such a shove.