Macron Tries Outreach to Head Off Further Protests

by Pelican Press
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For over six years, President Emmanuel Macron has struggled to convince the French that he is a man of dialogue. He went on a countrywide listening tour to calm the storms of the Yellow Vest uprising, convened a citizen convention on climate policy, and created a council of politicians and members of civil society to discuss France’s most pressing issues.

But he has generally remained a top-down leader, one who listens before deciding but rarely talks of compromise. An image of aloofness has clung to him, despite attempts to bury it.

Now, more isolated, he is trying political outreach.

In the midst of the torrid doldrums of mid-August, when the ritual of protest is momentarily replaced by the ritual of the beach, France awoke to the news that Mr. Macron would convene the main parliamentary groups on Wednesday for an afternoon of discussion followed by a dinner.

It looked like a pre-emptive strike aimed at heading off a potentially turbulent “rentrée” — the post-vacation convergence on Paris often marked by resentments reignited after a spell of downtime.

The official aim is to explore a feasible legislative agenda in a Parliament where Mr. Macron’s centrist party, Renaissance, and its allies do not hold an absolute majority. But the president’s position is delicate. With four years left in his second and final term, the last thing he wants is to be seen as a lame duck. Yet inevitably the jostling to succeed him will begin soon; in some respects, it already has.

If the protests over raising the retirement age to 64 early this year have abated, the bitterness around them has not. The way the government, using a constitutional provision, rammed this major reform through the lower house of Parliament without a vote sharpened anger over the extent of presidential power. As a result, Mr. Macron’s attempts to say “I hear you” to a legislature he does not control tend to fall flat.

“Macron won, he imposed his reform, but at the cost of a tension in the country that is quite extraordinary and an extremely strong polarization around his person,” said Vincent Martigny, a professor of political science at the University of Nice. He added that opposition parties were generally uninterested in compromise and had little incentive to help the president succeed.

In a scathing response to Mr. Macron’s outreach, the left-wing alliance in Parliament, which combines the leftist France Unbowed Party with the Socialists, Communists and Greens, rejected the dinner invitation.

“We have no illusions about your objectives,” they declared in a statement. “We are now accustomed to your public relations stunts that have no follow-up and no effect.”

The parties said they would show up for the afternoon session in the hope that what they described as pressing concerns — including a 10 percent hike in electricity prices this month and rising gasoline and food prices — could be addressed.

The conservative Republicans, who are closer to Mr. Macron’s center-right policies, if not fully aligned with them, seemed more interested in forcing Mr. Macron’s hand — especially on immigration policy — than in compromising with him.

“I’m going there to tell Mr. Macron that the chitchat has gone on too long, to say that we won’t play first fiddle to the symphony of immobility,” Eric Ciotti, the head of the Republican Party, told a party gathering in southern France last week.

Stéphane Séjourné, the leader of Mr. Macron’s Renaissance party, said that the fact all parties agreed to attend was a victory in itself. “Three months ago, that would not have happened,” he said. “Ours is a culture of opposition, not of coalition.”

In a wide-ranging interview with the magazine Le Point last week, Mr. Macron seemed more defiant than conciliatory. He criticized his opposition for being hopelessly divided and noted that his government had passed a number of laws over the past year, bill by bill, in improvised coalitions.

These included raising military spending, a law to accelerate the construction of new nuclear plants, and another to cut red tape and speed the development of green energy across France.

“Let those who claim we did nothing explain to me when they did more,” Mr. Macron told Le Point.

Such is the resentment stirred by Mr. Macron’s personality — he became president at the age of 39 in his first campaign for political office — that his real achievements in lowering unemployment, spurring foreign investment, developing a French tech sector, confronting the wounds of the French colonial past and raising the ambitions of the European Union tend to go unnoticed.

Somehow, if he is to give direction to his second term, it appears that he has to overcome this perception of his presidency that is skewed by personal animus toward him.

“He has failed to impress upon public opinion that he was a man of dialogue, especially after the disastrous pension reform sequence,” Mr. Martigny said.

Mr. Macron’s immigration reform plans could raise tensions further. They aim to strike a balance between cracking down on illegal immigration and extending work opportunities for migrants with needed skills.

The government wants to speed up the deportation process and create stricter language requirements for migrants applying for residency, who would also have to pledge to respect the “principles of the Republic.” But it also wants to create temporary job opportunities for skilled workers in fields experiencing labor shortages.

“I’d say we must now be mean with those who are mean and nice with those who are nice,” is how Gérald Darmanin, Mr. Macron’s interior minister, described it to Le Monde last year. Among ministers, Mr. Darmanin has appeared the most impatient in hinting at his presidential ambitions for 2027.

But the government’s efforts have done little to attract support from the left, which has called it too harsh, or from the right, which has said it does too little to stop the flow of migrants. That opposition, on top of the social unrest caused by Mr. Macron’s pension reform, led the government to delay the proposals repeatedly. A bill is now expected to be examined sometime in the fall.

Mr. Macron could ram it through the lower house of Parliament with the same provision — known as the 49.3 after the relevant article of the Constitution — he used for the pension reform. But it can only be used once per parliamentary session, except for budget bills. It would come at considerable political cost.

“Constitutionally, it’s not an issue, but politically it is,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris. “The democratically elected Parliament of one of Europe’s biggest countries can’t, over the course of several years, pass the most crucial bills through a procedure that squeezes parliamentary debate.”

Mr. Macron has also floated the idea of using popular referendums to bypass political gridlock. But he can only organize referendums on a limited set of issues, and they could turn against him.

“We are living a difficult and unusual moment,” Clément Beaune, the transportation minister, said in an interview. “We are emerging from a long and powerful social protest movement and facing a Parliament with no clear majority for the whole of the mandate.”

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