Press play to listen to this article
BAGNÈRES-DE-BIGORRE, France – Emmanuel Macron smelled a piece of local ham and put it in his mouth with delight, then sang a traditional song with the dozen villagers sitting with him by a road tucked away in the Pyrenees.
It was a more folkloric side of the normally button-up French president, but he was on familiar ground, near his beloved grandmother’s home in this mountainous region where he spent time as a child.
“The Pyrenees are lands to which I am very attached, I have memories here and family still here, as well as friends,” Macron said. “I know these landscapes very well.
His trip to the heart of the country last week left no doubt: Macron’s candidacy for re-election is well advanced, even if he will not officially announce his candidacy until next year, after the launch of the French presidency. of the Council of the EU in January.
Macron’s visit to Bagnères-de-Bigorre was the fifth stop in a personal Tour de France that began in June, coinciding with the Tour de France cycling race. He offered the president, often criticized as arrogant and out of touch, the chance to appear more approachable, surrounded by local friends, and enjoy one of the country’s most popular sporting events.
Taking ‘the pulse of the streets’, as his advisers describe these visits, Macron found himself facing the two biggest hurdles he has to overcome to defeat his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen and other potential rivals. : the coronavirus pandemic and a nagging lack of clarity among voters on what Macron really represents.
With Le Pen almost certain to be his opponent in the second round of the April 2022 elections, despite an increase in support for traditional parties in recent regional elections, the stakes could hardly be higher: the far right has never obtained such a high score in opinion polls this close to a presidential election. All polls put Macron and Le Pen neck and neck in the first round of the election, with Macron winning the second round by just 12 percentage points. In 2017, Macron won with around 32 points ahead of Le Pen.
Even in that part of France where support for Macron is generally high, some who came to see him said they were still unsure.
“I’m waiting to hear what he tells us today, what he has in mind to move forward,” said Vivian, a middle-aged special education teacher, just before Macron did arrives for the ham tasting round and song.
Some of Macron’s close advisers concede that in the end, he could be his own toughest opponent – never too far from making impromptu remarks that put off voters by making him appear detached or just plain unpleasant.
On Thursday, he came close when he said, in essence, that those in France who refuse to be vaccinated were indeed betraying the nation.
“We all have the same rights but each person has their share of duty because the freedom of the individual depends on the civic duty of others, that is what it is to be a nation,” Macron told reporters when asked about protests against his desire to get vaccinated. a condition of access to many public and leisure spaces.
PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION FRANCE VOTING SURVEY
For more survey data from across Europe, visit POLITICS Poll polls.
With a fourth wave of coronavirus underway and Threatening to derail the economic recovery that could be vital to his re-election effort, Macron said last week that the vaccine would become mandatory for health workers, and that all citizens would need proof of vaccination, or ‘a negative test, to enter restaurants or travel by plane and trains.
The president is betting heavily on an economic recovery.
With a well-prepared background speech, Macron hit the road highlighting the political changes implemented before the pandemic and the government bailout of 100 billion euros program he has put in place to boost the economy since the virus hit.
Macron’s goal is to instill confidence in his ability to lead the country through the next phase of the crisis, thereby persuading voters to grant him another five-year term.
“We have adopted sometimes unpopular reforms,” Macron told employees of an industrial factory in Bagnères-de-Bigorre. “This is what made France competitive in attracting investment.
The plant is owned by the Spanish company CAF, which manufactures railway equipment and has invested 25 million euros in the site, with the aim of creating 250 jobs over the next three years.
“We are supporting this factory through Relaunch France and over the long term,” Macron said, referring to a government investment of more than € 700,000 in the factory via the recovery fund. ” I encourage you. “
Voters are not sure if they will return the favor.
At least twice in previous stops, Macron has come face to face with the virulent antipathy he inspires in some in France.
In June, he was slapped in the face by a man identifying himself as a right-wing “patriot” outside a vocational high school in a small town in the south-east. On another visit, a father of two unemployed young people attacked Macron.
“France disillusioned! cried the middle-aged man. He complained that despite having funded his children’s education, they were still unemployed and living at home. “Bravo Macron! You won’t last any longer! ”
To counter such hostility, the government launched a website quantifying the progress of local services across the country, such as internet connectivity and combating violence against women. The Elysée now has a monthly newsletter which takes stock of “the good news and citizens’ initiatives which make France shine”. It’s titled “cock-a-doodle-doo,” a reference to the country’s national rooster symbol.
Campaign tactics and themes
Macron defined three themes for the rest of his term: economic recovery, reforms and social welfare. They aim to reach the diverse mix of center-left, center-right and green-colored voters that he will have to convince to secure a second term.
His chances of re-election will likely depend on his ability to mobilize them as he did in 2017, ticking disparate boxes.
To that end, the president has moved sharply to the right on crime, security and Islamism, while banking on the left by joking with young drug-savvy YouTubers, passing progressive rights legislation. women and promising to continue to generously distribute the government to support the pandemic-battered economy.
These pleasing tactics are a big gamble as he grapples with Le Pen’s more focused right-wing nationalist message, though she also seeks to broaden her populist base to tempt more mainstream conservative voters who are unhappy with Macron .
Macron supporters hope that a face-to-face with Le Pen will mean ordinary voters ignore any political zigzag to repudiate the far right as they did four years ago.
Yet even some close to Macron say he faces a new risk that ambivalent voters, especially on the left, will not bother to vote. Others, tired of the pandemic, could vote for anyone other than the incumbent.
“I believe that there is a possibility of revolt by the ballot box, a vote of mood rather than of reason”, recognized a senator in favor of Macron, who added: “Unless there is a better option, I would. will re-elect ”.
There are signs that the general public is not feeling so generous.
A record number of abstentions in regional elections held last month and Macron’s party, which has failed to build a strong local base, has been routed. This adds to the concern of the center-left voters, who played a crucial role in Macron’s victory in 2017, are so disillusioned that they will stay at home in 2022 even if their abstention lets Le Pen slip away.
“For the first time, voters could really abstain, because Macron’s presidential term was extremely divisive on socio-economic issues,” said Mathieu Gallard, research director at the Ipsos polling institute. “If he divides on identity and immigration, voters on the left will not have many good reasons to support him in the second round as they did in 2017.”
Discomfort behind the scenes
Behind Macron’s efforts to project a sense of control and optimism, there is concern in the halls of government.
“No one in government expected this pandemic to last this long,” said a former minister who requested anonymity to speak more freely. “I fear what will happen, the bankruptcies, when we start to reduce government aid when the presidential campaign will start in 2022.”
The president himself, however, shows no doubts.
“What Macron is saying privately is that those who voted for him will vote for him again,” said the senator who discussed the matter with the president and requested anonymity to share details of the conversation.
For now, Macron is focusing on the rather positive response he is getting on his thinly veiled election campaign.
In Lourdes, the final stop on his trip last week, a man among a crowd of over 1,000 outside the city’s famous Roman Catholic shrine approached the president to thank him.
“You are doing a remarkable job,” he said. “Even if many think the opposite. I warmly congratulate you.