French President Emmanuel Macron has embarked on what he calls a “catharsis” operation as he confronts angry voters in a series of walkabouts, an attempt to regain control of the narrative that could also reveal just how he became distant.
After weeks of protests over his decision to raise the minimum retirement age by two years, Macron’s approval ratings have plunged to near-record lows, threatening to cripple his reform agenda and turn him into a lame duck.
Macron, who cannot run again in 2027, must cool the political temperature to strike wage and condition deals with unions over the next few months, but also to prevent far-right leader Marine Le Pen from capitalizing on discontent in future elections.
The French leader has embarked on a nationwide public relations offensive, with several walks through French towns and villages a week – a change in communication strategy after staying away from the public for most of it. of the pension debate.
Whether it was a charming Alsatian village, a remote Mediterranean town or a medical center in the Loire Valley, the response was the same: seething anger, finger pointing, boos and jar.
At a Burgundian food market on Thursday, Macron was harangued by a man who denounced the high level of public debt, the lack of investment in hospitals and punitive local taxes.
“You talk a lot of nonsense every day,” the man told Macron, after the president, barely able to respond, said he needed to correct his numbers.
Such direct confrontations, the president believes, are key to giving people a cathartic release after weeks of anger directed at the government’s pensions bill and Macron himself.
An insider at the Elysee Palace told Reuters that Macron devised the strategy himself, deciding it was better to let the pent-up frustration out than let it fester.
“The logic of what I’m doing in the days, weeks and months to come is to let that anger out in a completely legitimate way,” Macron told reporters in Alsace last week.
The move echoes Macron’s decision in 2019 to launch what he called a “big debate” following the Yellow Vest rebellion, a broad anti-government movement sparked by high fuel prices. In this case, weeks of town halls across the country helped him stage a political comeback by appearing to be more in touch with the people.
Repeating this feat will be difficult, however.
An opinion poll conducted by the Ifop pollster exactly a year after Macron’s re-election and a few days after the signing of the pension reform law, showed his popularity rating close to the lows reached during the yellow vests crisis. .
Within that, the share of voters “very unhappy” with him reached 47% in April, a 7-point increase in one month and a record for that sub-segment.
“We observe a visceral and deep rejection in nearly one in two French people,” said Frédéric Dabi of Ifop.
Macron has crystallized anger with a series of missteps and cutting remarks over the past six years that have left a lasting impression of arrogance on the general public.
“The French no longer want to listen to him,” said Julien Odoul, a far-right MP. “It’s not brave to meet the French, it’s just the president’s job.”
For many government officials, the hatred seems irrational given Macron’s positive record on the economy, with unemployment at its lowest level in 15 years, inflation among the lowest in Europe and an economy escaping up to present in the recession.
But a return is made all the more difficult by a hardening of the political opposition in parliament.
Ahead of pension reform protests, the government managed to push through legislation on issues such as nuclear power and renewables with the help of left and right lawmakers outside the centrist alliance of Macron.
But making deals with other parties is now more difficult. The far-left alliance NUPES has adopted a strategy to demonize Macron. In the meantime, making deals with the far right would play into the hands of Le Pen, who wants to “normalize” his party to strengthen its powers.
The conservative Les Républicains (LR), a natural ally on economic and security reforms, was severely divided by the pension episode, and we can no longer count on him.
This showed again this week, when its Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was forced to abandon a bill on immigration.
She had to admit she had been unable to reach an agreement with LR on the legislation, which aimed to please voters left and right by speeding up deportations of illegal migrants while making it easier to obtain residence permits for those who work. in sectors that are struggling to find workers.
The government this week published a “road map” of what it wants to achieve this year. Its next big reform is a plan to make work or train 15 to 20 hours a week for recipients of the social minima.
This is already creating discomfort. Martin Hirsh, an influential voice on poverty issues who worked in former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, said it would amount to “unpaid work” and was a “terrifying” prospect.
All of this is made trickier in the context of rising interest rates on a pile of debt worth 112% of GDP.
The government is working on a spending review. No details have been revealed so far, but the spending cut could prove politically explosive.
The government can still use executive powers to pass the budget bill at the end of the year, but the reputational costs of doing so are high – as the pensions bill has shown.
At the food market, however, Macron seemed determined to press on.
“Some people aren’t happy, some people scold me, but you can talk. And sometimes you can convince them,” he said with a smile.
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(This story has not been edited by News18 staff and is published from a syndicated news agency feed)