From Jupiter to VRP

16 May 2023

President Macron, France’s erstwhile Jupiter, has been on the road this past week flogging his wares like an old-time VRP (for those too young to remember: VRP = voyageur représentant placier, or traveling salesman). He’d already announced free condoms for those in the 18-25 age group (I’m not making this up–see the linked article), but when that proved insufficient to restore the luster he lost in going for broke on pension reform, he decided to go door-to-door. In the past week he’s made four media appearances and given speeches right and left. Topping the free condom offer, he dangled the tidy sum of 2 billion euros in tax cuts in front of France’s “middle class,” despite Prime Minister Borne’s opposition. Peu importe: the PM is on life support anyway, provided a replacement can be found who doesn’t frighten away key figures in Macron’s dwindling band of brothers.

The change of style reflects the quandary in which the president finds himself. Having tried, with little success, to strike a Gaullian pose during the pension battle, saying little, pretending to remain above the fray, and allowing valiant Mme Borne to absorb volley after volley of barbed arrows, he seems to have concluded that she isn’t up to the job and that it’s time to work a little of the old En Marche! magic that got him to the top of the greasy pole. So he’s out working the crowd again, hoping that the charisma still flows. But like nostalgia, charisma ain’t what it used to be. The name “Macron” is no longer a blank slate on which anxious citizens can project the image of the leader they desire. That image is now only too well-defined in people’s heads, and multiplying public appearances does nothing but reinforce judgments that have already hardened like concrete.

One solution might be the time-honored one of withdrawing for a time from the domestic arena and assuming the lofty role of elder statesman (albeit still in his 40s). Appoint a caretaker for the homeland and turn the presidential eye to the global arena. François Bayrou would be only too happy to take over from Elisabeth Borne and occupy himself with the daily chore of grinding out the prose of governance, leaving the poetry of limning a better world to the mellifluous if grandiloquent Macron. Two things stand in the way of this Solomonic solution: one has the feeling that Macron sees Bayrou as perfectly suited to serve as mayor of Pau and nothing more, while Macron’s counterparts on the global stage have a similar estimate of his capacity to fill a larger role.

The limitations of being a lame duck–and an unpopular lame duck at that–have yet to sink in at the Elysée. Free condoms and €2 billion euros of helicopter money aren’t likely to change the morose Gallic mood.

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