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Macron’s pledge to unite France is already falling on deaf ears

Parisians gather at Place de la Republique to protest against the election of France's centrist incumbent president Emmanuel Macron for a second five-year term as president, on April 24, 2022 in Paris, France. (Kiran Ridley/Getty Images/TNS)

President Emmanuel Macron may not have to wait long to find out just how badly his reelection has gone down in parts of France.

The French rallied around to give the 44-year-old centrist a second five-year term in Sunday’s presidential election. But many of them had to swallow their anger at his pro-business approach and perceived arrogance before they reluctantly voted for him in order to stop far-right leader Marine Le Pen from taking power.

Macron’s time in office has already seen at times violent demonstrations against his plans to reform the pension system, economic inequality and police brutality, which threw his overhaul of the economy off course. Unions are targeting the traditional workers’ day demonstrations on May 1 as a rallying point for those who want to show Macron that his victory doesn’t give him a blank check, according to Philippe Martinez, the leader the CGT, a driving force behind those protests.

“The streets remain important,” he said. Several other unions including the Force Ouvriere, Unsa and Solidaires have said they’d join in while the CFDT is holding an event in Paris.

Under Macron’s rule, the economy performed well, unemployment fell, and the country became more attractive to foreign investors. But many people still feel left behind and Le Pen stoked a sense that the former investment banker is so far removed from their daily struggles that he will never be able to understand them.

From southern areas near Marseille to urban centers around Paris and the former steel and textile regions of the north where support for Le Pen is particularly strong, many working-class voters are convinced that’s true. Already on Sunday night there were protests in Paris, Lyon, Montpellier and Toulouse.

“This is a president who spat in the face of the French people,” said Nolwenn Neveu, a school teacher in the capital who says she held her nose as she voted for the president. She is betting that Macron will face significant push back and says that the harder Macron pushes his reform plans, the more resistance he will face. “It will be bloody,” she said.

The French leader’s team has vowed to try to heal the country’s divides. They promised to work more closely with civil society groups as they push ahead with efforts to make France more competitive, by overhauling social policies such as pensions and improving the country’s economic fundamentals.

Macron himself struck a somber and humble tone during his speech on Sunday night, saying the next five years will be different and that he’ll be “the president of all the French.”

The sense of working-class alienation that has fueled support for the far-right is nothing new in French politics.

Jacques Chirac made healing “social fractures” a theme of his presidential campaign in 1995. But his ambitions to overhaul policies to help make that a reality were thwarted by long strikes. A generation later, Macron is still trying to fix those same problems of poor social mobility and a lack of good jobs for young people.

“What scares Macron is that his mandate becomes useless because of a gridlock over social issues,” said William Thay, a right-wing analyst and founder of the think tank Le Millenaire. “That’s why he has insisted he would change his style of governance.”

The president extended an olive branch to the voters on the left who rallied round him on election night, promising to put the environment at the center of his project. One minister said Macron is keen to choose a female prime minister. And in the run-up to the vote he sent 100-euro handouts dubbed “inflation compensation” to 38 million people and earmarked around 25 billion euros ($27 billion) for measures to shield consumers from surging energy prices.

A recent Kanar survey showed the French are among the most critical of the EU, that their trust in institutions is below European average and that less than 50% are satisfied by the government’s handling of Coronavirus pandemic.

Le Pen voters are more pessimistic about the future, more concerned about law and order and more skeptical about democracy than voters of any other party. She capitalized on the rising cost-of-living to convince many people that Macron has done nothing for them — even in places where unemployment has fallen.

Jerome Batret, a farmer near Lyon, said he voted for the nationalist because she understands that higher energy prices make life for people like him impossible. He predicts blockades by students and the far-left and says many of his peers have never really given up on the Yellow Vest protest movement that brought Macron’s agenda to a halt during his first term.

“Whatever happens, it will be a mess,” he said.


© 2022 Bloomberg L.P
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