French President Emmanuel Macron has launched a “catharsis” campaign, addressing furious people in a series of walkabouts in an attempt to reclaim control of the narrative, which may also reveal how detached he has become.
After weeks of protests against his plan to raise the minimum pension age by two years, Macron’s popularity has plummeted to near-record lows, threatening to stymie his reform program 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 center 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.