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The new French leader was seen as being key to the EU, but instead he has been scapegoating it in order to deflect criticism away from himself.

When he came to office, Emmanuel Macron was claimed as the poster child for European political liberalism, saving the day against the forces of extremism and populism. “Europe’s saviour?” was a common headline.

The relief was felt far beyond France. In the world of Trump and Brexit, the 39-year-old’s meteoric rise brought solace to all those worried about the state of representative democracy and the global liberal order. Remember how Barack Obama endorsed Macron’s campaign, saying, “the success of France matters to the entire world”.

Three months on, some of the gloss has come off. Does that mean France’s self-styled “Jupiterian” president is already damaged goods? Hardly. But a difficult road lies ahead. Macron’s approval ratings have plummeted over the summer. They’re now down to 36%, lower than even those of his lacklustre predecessor, François Hollande, at the same stage in his presidential term.

Yes, Macron has made mistakes. Social media are rife with jokes about the €26,000 (£24,000) he has spent on makeup since his election. That may say something about a conspicuously image-obsessed personality, particularly given all the magazine covers devoted to his wife, Brigitte, and the photographs of him in pilot gear or dangling from a helicopter above a submarine, James Bond style. Not to mention the use he makes of Facebook to circumvent the traditional media filter. Still, none of this differentiates him much from other politicians of the younger generation. There were more serious blunders when he needlessly stumbled into a battle of egos with the army’s chief of staff, who later resigned. Yet more trouble came with the inexperience and confusion shown by his party’s freshly elected members in parliament. That may all be part of the learning process, as the price for radical political renewal must surely include trial and error. It’s hard to deny that the French political scene has been thoroughly overhauled by this year’s elections, an accomplishment Macron must be given due credit for.

The real problem lies elsewhere. It’s in the scale of the liberal, market-oriented reforms Macron wants to introduce, in a country that may not so willingly accept them. This effort must involve a lot of convincing if resistance is to be broken down. Macron will be constantly reminded that he gained only 24% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. That, and not the 66% he garnered against Marine Le Pen in the second round, was the true measure of his core constituency.

It is no exaggeration to believe – as is the case in Berlin – that Europe’s future depends on whether Macron can succeed as a transformational president. But how is he going about this task? His activities this past week, as he returned to work after a short vacation in Marseille with Brigitte, were revealing.

France feels like it is living on top of a volcano. One trade union is already preparing a strike and demonstrations for 12 September. The far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose Unbowed France movement gained almost 20% of the vote in May, has called for a “moral insurrection” against reforms he describes as “a social coup d’état”.

But in the midst of all this, Macron headed to eastern Europe. There, he made the case for a tightening of the EU’s “posted workers” directive, which allows companies to send employees to work temporarily in other member states while continuing to pay benefits and taxes in their own country.

This move shouldn’t be read as an attempt to revise freedom of movement: it isn’t. Still, Macron’s team span his tactic as being designed to prevent a Brexit-type reaction in which popular anger grows against foreign workers “allowed in without restrictions”. In fact, the changes he seeks are largely cosmetic. On top of this, support in France for freedom of movement remains high (79% in favour), as it does across the whole of the EU (81%), as the latest Eurobarometer study shows.

Macron’s main strategy is to exaggerate a fight he’s putting up at a European level against “social dumping”, to neutralise some of the domestic criticism he has received for wanting to transform France’s rigid labour market. This has now led to a nasty spat with Poland, whose prime minister has accused him of arrogance and inexperience. Macron’s argument that “Europe must protect” social rights is valid, but scapegoating the EU risks landing him in exactly in the same place as the populist politicians he wants to thwart. Back in April, Macron defended the “posted workers” directive, but opposition from both Marine Le Pen and Melenchon led to his U-turn. Indeed, Macron is a latecomer to this issue: the EU commission has been looking at how to reform it since March last year.

The key challenge for Macron is to make sure his reforms aren’t perceived as dismantling the welfare state but as modernising it along the lines of the Scandinavian model. It is often said that austerity breeds populism, but the growth of the far right in France has other explanations. The country hasn’t experienced anything comparable to the cuts Britain underwent during the coalition years – not to mention Thatcherism. Nor was it ever subjected to the kind of treatment Greece received.

In France, income inequality and poverty rates are lower than in Britain and Germany. What the country does suffer from is decades-old mass unemployment – hovering at 10%, and now around 21% among 18- to 24-year-olds. Unlike in Britain, young people in France voted in far larger numbers for the far right than they did for the left or liberal parties. Macron took to battling with eastern Europeto show he’s on the side of French workers, not EU technocrats. But the degree of manipulation wasn’t hard to detect. In a candid moment at a press conference last Wednesday, he almost admitted as much, saying, “France’s problems have nothing to do with posted workers.”

If there are lessons to be drawn from Brexit for France, surely they aren’t about designating eastern European workers as a threat to collective wellbeing. The best antidote to populism isn’t scaremongering, but economic performance and fixing homegrown problems. Macron ought to square that difficulty without throwing more oil on nationalist passions. He is right to recall that the “Polish plumber” syndrome played a part in French voters’ rejection of an EU constitution project in 2005, but rekindling some of that debate now comes with risks. He’s trying to deflect attention from domestic woes by pointing to external dangers, even though posted workers represent only 1% of the EU workforce. It’s not obvious how this tactic will help further his ambition to reboot the European project, alongside Angela Merkel.

Macron is not irreversibly damaged yet. The eurozone economy is doing better these days. Some trade unions do support his reforms. But to successfully lead his nation, Macron will need to deploy more energy on the domestic front rather than seek disputes abroad.

Obama was right: France is a key player in Europe, even more so after Brexit. The state of its democracy matters to the entire world. But the oft made comparisons to Napoleon should concern Macron, not encourage hubris. His battles must first be fought at home, before any attempt to transform the rest of the continent.

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