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20 April 2023

Emmanuel Macron’s appeasement tour is off to a rough start

As he visits the regions, can the French leader move on from the pension reform protests and relaunch his presidency?

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – On Monday 17 April the French president, in a televised address, gave himself 100 days to “appease” the country, which was still seething after he signed an unpopular retirement reform into law the previous week. The first days have not gone well.

On 19 April, Emmanuel Macron began the first leg of a tour of France, presenting himself as a leader listening to ordinary voters’ concerns. Visiting the eastern region of Alsace, on the German border, the president sought to move the political debate on from the toxic retirement reform, which he considers constitutionally and democratically legitimate. (After Macron forced the reform through parliament without a vote, large numbers of French people disagree.)

Yet Macron found that few people in Alsace were ready to move on. The president was booed virtually everywhere he went. In the commune of Muttersholtz, hundreds of demonstrators sought to drown out his address by banging pots and pans. In Sélestat, Macron was met with calls to “resign”. One demonstrator called him an “arsehole” to his face. Another told him that he leads a “corrupt government” which would “soon fall”.

The power was cut at a woodworking business minutes before the president was due to visit, a move hard-line trade unionists took credit for.

Macron didn’t take the anger directed at him in his stride. Being conciliatory is not something that comes naturally to the president – even if it is the explicit goal he has set himself. “There are a load of people who cannot get over not having won [last year’s] presidential elections,” Macron told reporters in Sélestat. “There are a load of people who, when we don’t do what they want, bang on pots and pans. But that’s not democracy.” 

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[See also: Emmanuel Macron’s vision for Europe still doesn’t match reality]

The second day of the tour didn’t go much better. While Macron was visiting Ganges, a village in southern France, on 20 April, he was met with hundreds of demonstrators. Again, the power was cut to the area Macron visited. Police were filmed searching protesters’ bags for pots and pans, which they said had been banned by local authorities, projecting an image of petty authoritarian insecurity. (In response to media coverage, the local prefecture said police had misunderstood their orders.)

In the south of France, Macron announced a pay rise for teachers of “between €100 and €230 a month,” perhaps an attempt to move the news agenda on from the protests against him.

The question facing Macron now is whether he can overcome the pension reform controversy and relaunch his presidency. His advisers are betting on the anger abating over time, now that the reform is law and the legal avenues for defeating it have been exhausted.

Still, opponents of the reform don’t appear ready to give in. They are clinging to precedents of unpopular laws being withdrawn even after being passed, such as the 2006 First Employment Contract, which would have made it easier to fire employees – after protests and strikes it was repealed. Unions have pledged massive demonstrations on May Day (1 May), the holiday that traditionally sees left-wing demonstrators take to the streets. Leaders on the left hope that the May Day protests will show that the opposition to pension reform is still strong. The so-called united protest could be one of the largest in France since far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly advanced to the second round of the 2002 presidential election.

And so Macron appears politically weaker than ever. He has so far failed in negotiations to increase his majority in parliament (in fact, the opposite happened when four left-leaning MPs announced they were leaving the president’s party, Renaissance, on 13 April). His tour of France may show him to be willing to face his critics but it also underlines his deep unpopularity and the anger towards his methods, which are viewed as authoritarian and anti-democratic.

Is there a way out of the impasse? The president has previously demonstrated a remarkable knack for surmounting political crises, such as the Yellow Vest demonstrations in 2018-19. Just last year, he became the first president to win re-election for 20 years. But Macron will need to find some more of that canniness if he is to avoid becoming a lame duck, just one year into his five-year term.

[See also: The French right can’t quit Russia]

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