Braving boos, Macron hopes 'cathartic' walkabouts will soothe pension anger
By Michel Rose and Elizabeth Pineau
PARIS (Reuters) -French President Emmanuel Macron has thrown himself into what he calls a "catharsis" operation by confronting angry voters in a series of walkabouts, an attempt to regain control of the narrative that could also expose how distant he has become.
After weeks of protests against his decision to raise the minimum pension age by two years, Macron's popularity ratings have plunged to near record-low levels, threatening to paralyse his reform agenda and turn him into a lame duck.
Macron, who cannot stand again in 2027, needs to cool the political temperature to strike deals on pay and conditions with unions over the next few months, but also to prevent far-right leader Marine Le Pen from capitalising on the discontent in future elections.
The French leader has embarked on a nationwide PR offensive, with several walkabouts in French towns and villages a week -- a shift in communication strategy after staying out of the public eye for most of the pension debate.
Be it a charming Alsacian village, a remote Mediterranean town or a medical centre in the Loire valley, the response has been the same: seething anger, finger-pointing, boos and pot banging.
In a Burgundy food market on Thursday, Macron was harangued by a man who decried the high level of government debt, the lack of investment in hospitals and punitive local taxes.
"You talk a lot of nonsense everyday," the man told Macron, after the president, barely able to squeeze in an answer, said he should get his numbers right.
Such direct confrontations, the president reckons, are essential to give people a cathartic release after weeks of anger directed at the government's pension bill and Macron himself.
An Elysee insider told Reuters Macron came up with the strategy himself, deciding it was better to let pent-up frustration come out now than let it fester.
"The logic of what I'm doing in the coming days, weeks and months is to let this anger come out in a totally legitimate way," Macron told reporters in Alsace last week.
The move echoes Macron's decision in 2019 to launch what he called a "great debate" following the yellow-vest rebellion, a broad anti-government movement triggered by high fuel prices. In this instance, weeks of town-hall meetings across the country helped him stage a political come-back by appearing to listen more to people.
Repeating that feat will be hard, however.
An opinion poll by pollster Ifop taken exactly a year after Macron's re-election and a few days after he signed the pension reform into law, showed his popularity ratings close to lows reached during the yellow-vest crisis.
Within that, the share of voters "very unhappy" with him reached 47% in April, a 7-point increase in a month and a record-high for this sub-segment.
"We can observe a visceral and gut-deep rejection among almost one in two French people," Ifop's Frederic Dabi said.
Macron has crystallised anger with a series of faux pas and cutting remarks over the past six years that have left a lasting impression of haughtiness among the general public.
"The French don't want to listen to him anymore," Julien Odoul, a far-right lawmaker said. "It's not brave to meet the French, it's just the president's job."
For many government officials, the hatred appears irrational given Macron's positive record on the economy, with unemployment down to a 15-year low, inflation among the lowest in Europe, and the economy escaping recession so far.
But a comeback is made all the more difficult by a hardening of political opposition in parliament.
Before the pension reform protests, the government managed to pass legislation on issues such as nuclear energy and renewables with the help of both left-wing and right-wing lawmakers outside Macron's centrist alliance.
But making deals with other parties is now more difficult. The hard-left NUPES alliance has adopted a strategy to demonise Macron. Making deals with the far-right, meanwhile, would play into the hands of Le Pen, who wants to "normalise" her party to boost her governing credentials.
The conservative Les Republicains (LR), a natural ally on economic and law and order reforms, was badly split by the pension episode, and can no longer be relied on.
That was apparent again this week, when his prime minister Elisabeth Borne was forced to give up on an immigration bill.
She had to admit she had failed to reach a deal with LR on the legislation, which aimed to please both left-wing and right-wing voters by speeding-up expulsions of illegal migrants while making it easier to obtain residency permits for those who work in sectors struggling to find workers.
The government has this week published a "roadmap" of what it wants to achieve this year. Its next big reform is a plan to make those receiving the minimum welfare benefit work or get training for 15-20 hours a week.
That's already causing unease. 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 debt pile worth 112% of GDP.
The government is working on a spending review. No details have been revealed so far but cutting spending could prove politically explosive.
The government can always 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 pension bill showed.
At the food market, however, Macron appeared determined to carry on.
"Some people are not happy, some people tell me off, but you can talk. And sometimes you can convince them," he said with a smile.
($1 = 0.9098 euros)
(Reporting by Michel RoseEditing by Christina Fincher)