Emmanuel Macron: From celebrated centrist to divisive leader

Macron had beaten far-right Marine Le Pen to the Elysee Palace in a second round, bucking a rising populist trend in the West which had served up two political earthquakes – the election of US President Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit referendum.

At the grand party on the esplanade of the Louvre Museum, French Muslims with North African ancestry and Syrian refugees danced and celebrated alongside gay couples and African immigrants, all joyously chanting “Macron, president!”

Dressed in a black suit and tie, Macron walked on stage to Ode to Joy, the EU anthem, forgoing La Marseillaise. It was a symbolic choice. Had Le Pen won, she would have wasted no time in trying to pull France out of the bloc.

“Let’s love France,” he said. “Tonight, you won. France won.”For one night, people revelled in the far right’s loss, even though many had held their noses as they voted for Macron – a centrist, former investment banker, the economy minister under President Francois Hollande, and sometimes described as a “soft populist”.

A year after he became president, the “yellow vest” movement was formed, demanding economic justice.

By the end of 2019, another series of protests began against Macron’s economic vision, this time, his proposal to overhaul the pensions system.

Lately, his government has come under pressure for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. A group of COVID-19 survivors is attempting to sue Prime Minister Jean Castex for his virus policy, which they argue prioritised the economy over public health.

This week, journalists and activists are protesting a bill that if passed would see people who share images of police officers’ faces on social media or elsewhere punished with a year in prison or a 45,000-euro ($53,000) fine.

“He was a good campaigner, able to sell many dreams and probably sees himself as a brilliant speaker who had never faced any failure before,” Diallo told Al Jazeera, in a recent interview.

“But he is not as talented when it comes to connecting with the people. He has trouble putting himself in the shoes of regular people and understanding their challenges.

“On his path to become president, he was revered by the middle class and gentrifiers, but he has never been able to connect with the working class.”

In April 2022, France will vote again and Macron is desperately trying to avoid the same scenario; Le Pen announced earlier this year she will be running.

“We cannot take his re-election for granted, we have to fight and we are so afraid that Marine Le Pen will pass the second round,” Sonia Krimi, a politician with Macron’s La Republique en Marche! (The Republic on the Move; LREM) party, told Al Jazeera.

She feared Le Pen could succeed in the same way that Trump did in 2017, snatching the presidency after Obama “because of people’s frustrations”.

Macron is also in the thick of office politics.

In May, he lost a parliamentary majority as a group of left-wing politicians defected and formed a new party, “Nous demain” – Tomorrow is ours.

“What is interesting is that since General de Gaulle, we have a president who has no political party,” Alain Gresh, a journalist, author and the founder of OrientXXI.info, told Al Jazeera. “For Macron, many MPs have left. There is no real structure … His legacy will not be solid because there is no political or historical solidity.”

An ‘Islamodiversion’?

In more recent weeks, however, the most fervent demonstrations targeting Macron have erupted far from Europe’s borders, in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims are responding to his critique of Islam, his plans to regulate the way Muslims practise in France, and his defence of the Prophet Muhammad caricatures that deeply offend them.

The caricatures, recently reprinted by Charlie Hebdo as the trial for the deadly 2015 attacks got under way, often link Islam to violence and are considered by many to be Islamophobic.

After the October 16 killing of Samuel Paty, a teacher who was beheaded in broad daylight after showing his students the images, the caricatures were projected on government buildings.

“We will not give up cartoons,” Macron said at a ceremony held for Paty.

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