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DUNKIRK, France — Emmanuel Macron couldn’t have hoped for a more engaging crowd.
A group of women — workers with hard helmets and protective gear — were asking for a photo. “You’re being mobbed by the women of Aluminium Dunkerque!” they laughed.
Standing amid the crowd of factory workers in the port city of Dunkirk, the French president was in his element: shaking hands, fielding questions and taking selfies. “Any more questions?” he asked.
But he did not address the elephant in the room. And none of the blue-collar workers shouted about Macron’s unpopular, controversial pensions reform. It wasn’t that nobody dared ruin the unveiling of an electric battery giga-factory project; rather these workers had been hand-picked by their employer.
In the past weeks, Macron has been hitting the road across France visiting towns big and small, in what he has called a bid to “engage” with the people after the bruising debates over his controversial pensions reform.
France has been rocked by weeks of protests in the wake of the French president’s decision to bypass parliament and push through a reform raising the age of retirement to 64 from 62. The forcing through of the reform was widely seen as yet another manifestation of Macron’s famously “Jupiterian” governance style — a vertical, top-down manner of running the country.
Though nationwide protests have ebbed since the reform became law in April, Macron’s initial visits had been dogged by ad-hoc demonstrations called casserolades [casserole protests], organized by trade unionists and protesters against his reforms. The tightly-controlled show in Dunkirk followed more tumultuous scenes during his initial visits. In the eastern region of Alsace, Macron faced booing crowds and power cuts during his visit to a local factory in April, which were claimed by the hard-line CGT trade union.
For the French president, it has meant a clampdown on visits. Encounters with the public are minutely choreographed to avoid bad publicity, with details unveiled at the very last minute.
In Dunkirk, over 1,000 police officers were deployed to secure the area visited by the president, erecting barricades, closing streets and banning cars in the town center. Such scenes are unusual in France where successive presidents have enjoyed freely mingling with the people. On the sidelines of his visit, POLITICO caught up with the French president to ask him about his charm offensive.
“Of course, it’s great … I’m trying to reach out [to the people] … to explain the coherence of what we are doing. We get results when we are coherent and consistent,” he said.
On his difficulties in connecting with the public, Macron said: “My visits are simple … The overwhelming majority of the French may be against the pensions reform … But I do not confuse people who disagree with me with the small minority that are prone to disrespect and invective.”
Grabbing the limelight
In addition to touring the country in recent weeks, Macron has relentlessly blitzed the media sphere, granting multiple interviews to the French and international press, while putting forward a string of government proposals for improving education, tackling immigration and bringing back industry.
“In appearance, Emmanuel Macron and [his prime minister] Elisabeth Borne adopted a very efficient strategy. In drowning out the news, with their visits, their proposals and their new measures, they were able to impose a new agenda,” said Bruno Cautrès, a politics researcher at Sciences Po University.
“But the data shows that the public has not moved on,” he added. This month several polls showed a majority of the French still support the protest movement against the president’s centerpiece reform.
Even if nationwide protests over the pensions reform have tapered off, concerns are rising about increasing violence against elected officials and personal attacks against the president. In the southern city of Avignon, residents woke up last week to find dozens of posters depicting the French president as Hitler. That same week, Brigitte Macron’s great-nephew was assaulted in Macron’s hometown of Amiens in an apparent politically-motivated attack.
Beyond the accusations that Macron’s pensions reform push was too brutal, and too disrespectful of parliamentary democracy, the recent political turmoil has political commentators discussing a “democratic crisis” in France.
Some say France needs a constitutional reform, others that political life has become too polarized. According to Sylvain Fort, a former adviser to the French president, the mainstream left and right in France still haven’t recovered from his victory in 2017.
“My great surprise is that opposition parties are still shadows of their former selves. It’s not the president that is stopping the opposition from rebuilding itself. The president doesn’t want the democratic debate to be sterile, it’s the result of years of neglect,” he said.
Instead, the far-right and the far-left parties have dominated the political debate in France.
In Dunkirk, Macron eschewed ideology and hoped to make one point clear: His tough choices are bringing jobs and investment back to France. But by the same token, if Macron’s reform drive grinds to a halt, his government will face significant challenges.
“If after all the [recent] proposals he has made, we see that in a year’s time, nothing has progressed … then yes, he will find it very difficult to finish his mandate,” said Cautrès.
The government has already had to delay tackling a key issue — migration — because of a lack of consensus and parliamentary support. Depending on the evolution of Macron’s reconnect-with-the-people tour, his second-term agenda could be severely upended, rendering him a lame-duck president.
Fixing the economy may not be enough to rekindle trust between the French and their president.