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‘French Watergate’ takes toll on Macron as his popularity collapses in France

Key Points
  • Approval ratings for Emmanuel Macron have hit a record low.
  • His presidency is under fire after his failure to move on from a scandal involving his security aide.
  • French citizens are unhappy with Macron's style which some perceive as arrogant.
French President Emmanuel Macron leaves his house with his deputy chief of staff Alexandre Benalla (L) on the eve of the second round of the French parliamentary elections on June 17, 2017, in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, France.
Chesnot | Getty Images

A scandal involving the security guard of Emmanuel Macron has fast become the biggest crisis of the president's short spell as leader.

During a protest on May 1 his 26-year-old security aide Alexandre Benalla was captured on video hitting a male protester and violently manhandling another woman.

Bennalla was wearing a police visor and helmet but was only supposed to be observing the police in action. A few days after the incident Macron suspended Benalla, but the security official was not sacked until July 20, a few days after being identified by the newspaper Le Monde.

Macron has drawn criticism by remaining largely silent over the matter but added fuel to the fire Tuesday by telling his own ministers at a closed-door event that his rivals "could come and get me if they dare."

A political analyst at Sciences Po, Thomas Guenole, told CNBC Thursday that such a statement showed Macron is behaving "like a child-king, and not like a statesman."

Guenole added that Macron's cultivated image of a brave and strong leader had been damaged by his refusal to publicly confront the press or rival politicians. The analyst said the scandal could prove very costly.

"This 'BenallaGate' is a French Watergate. Because just like the U.S. one, the problem is not the crime but the cover-up. The French people saw lieutenants and ministers of Macron lie repeatedly," he said via email.

French President elect Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Trogneux celebrate on the stage at his victory rally near the Louvre in Paris, France May 7, 2017.
Christian Hartmann | Reuters

In May 2017, Macron became the youngest ever president of France. The then 39-year-old won easily against the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in a run-off by capturing more than 66 percent of the vote.

But in recent weeks, cracks have appeared and surveys from Ipsos, BVA and Ifop all suggest the French leader now has a record low for approval ratings.

One poll from Ifop suggested that while nearly 60 percent believe that Macron defends the country's international interests, only 29 percent think he understands the problems of the ordinary people.

The current scandal over his security guard isn't the only issue that has sparked accusations that the president is aloof and out of touch.

Building a swimming pool at the presidential summer retreat on the Mediterranean coast, publicly scolding a teenager who addressed him by a nickname and lecturing a worker about the importance of hard work have all firmed up the impression of a self-important leader adrift from France's working class.

François Pinault, who is one of France's richest men and the owner of Gucci, has claimed that Macron "does not understand the little people."

Macron's policies

To win the presidency Macron formed his own party, En Marche, and campaigned to secure votes from people unhappy with either the socialist government of predecessor Francois Holland or the far-right candidate, Le Pen.

In his first few months as president, Macron pressed for a package of reforms on labor laws which has given more flexibility to companies to hire and fire as well as a cap on pay outs for unfair dismissals. He has also announced enhanced voluntary redundancy packages in an attempt to trim the French civil service.

Emmanuel Macron, France's president, center, listens as U.S. President Donald Trump, left, speaks at an arrival ceremony during a state visit on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., April 24, 2018.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Added to that, Macron has made cuts to corporate and wealth taxes and reinforced a determination to adhere to the European Union's rule on members keeping budget deficits below 3 percent. That target was achieved in March this year for the first time since the beginning of 2008.

The unemployment rate in France unexpectedly increased to 9.2 percent in the three months to March of this year but has generally been on a downward trend over the last five years. Growth has slipped however, sitting at just 0.2 percent for 2018's first and second quarter.