ANALYSIS: Can Macron cheer up the French with his ‘Tour de France’?

ANALYSIS: Can Macron cheer up the French with his 'Tour de France'?
Emmanuel Macron is beginning a tour of France in an attempt to reconnect with the French people. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP
President Emmanuel Macron has begun a Tour de France, writes John Lichfield. It is a mountain climb, not a sprint.

Twice a week for the next three months he will pop up in some part of France to listen to people and talk about the “forgotten successes” of his presidency. 

Officially, Macron is celebrating the end of the third Covid lockdown. He is “taking the pulse” of the nation after 14 months of on-off “confinements”. In reality, of course, this is the start of his campaign for re-election next April and May.

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His first trip at the end of May saw him talking to young people about grass-roots sport in Pont-Sainte-Marie near Troyes in the Aube département, 180 kilometres east of Paris.

The youngsters were vaguely impressed to see the President; they were overjoyed to see one of his companions, the retired French basketball star, Tony Parker.

The tour – or “pilgrimage” according to Macron – is not exactly a re-run of “the Great Debate”, a series of public meetings conducted by Macron at the height of the Gilets Jaunes crisis in early 2019. There will be some sessions of questions and answers but no endless Macronsplaining.

The Elysée says that Macron wants to “listen…to talk to people without barriers.” There will be walkabouts and informal chats.

“It may be difficult at times but he’s missed this a great deal,” one official told Le Monde.

“We have a narrative problem,” another Elysée source says. “Covid squashed everything. We have a good economic record but it’s been drowned out by the noise of the pandemic.”

“Narrative” is one of the great buzz words of contemporary politics. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson is said to be a master of “narrative”. The fact that he often narrates exaggerations, half-truths or outright lies does not seem to concern his admirers or apologists too much.

Johnson is a master of the optimistic narrative – giving a sense of direction or destination, even if his claims are false.

Macron’s Tour de France is also intended to give people a sense of direction or destination to his presidency. Above all, it’s an attempt to counter the ambient miserabilism and negativity encouraged by the far right leader Marine Le Pen,  by many other politicians of the Right and Left and by much of the French media, especially the 24-hour TV news channels.

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There is a systematic campaign in progress – partly conscious, partly not – to present Macron as somehow more wicked and destructive than previous presidents. This goes far beyond what is justified by Macron’s mistakes or his occasional arrogance. He is still paying the price for being a political upstart, unprotected by the usual political labels or families.

The President’s record is patchy; the management of the epidemic has been chaotic and clumsy at times; but his Tour de France does have a tale to tell.

France has weathered the pandemic economically better than most of its neighbours, including the UK. Before the Covid-19 virus appeared, unemployment had fallen to 8.1 percent, the lowest figure for two decades. Taxes have been reduced, especially for those with middling incomes.

The €100 billion French recovery package is being spent ahead of schedule – 70 percent by the end of this year, instead of 40 percent, on projects such a green energy schemes and new public housing.

Macron took a risky or courageous decision last month to end the latest Covid lockdown before the experts thought that it was reasonable or safe to do so. I was one of those who said this decision was, at least in part, a politically-motivated gamble.

So far (and I stress so far) Macron has been proved right. The virus has retreated rapidly over the last 4 weeks. Numbers of patients in acute care, over 6,000 in late April, have fallen under 4,000.

The French vaccination programme is booming. It hit its target of 20 million first doses by last Saturday and is ahead of the curve for the next big target of 30 million (almost 60 percent of adults) by June 15th.

Macron’s political ratings remain reasonably high (but may be fragile). He is given a positive rating of around 40 percent by different polling companies, far higher than his two predecessors at this stage of their first (and only) terms.

He comes just behind Le Pen in long-range surveys for the first round of the presidential elections next April and beats her by a scarily small margin in the second round – around 53 to 47 percent (compared to 66-34 in 2017).

Macron’s Tour de France (he presumably won’t wear yellow) is intended to remind the country of these things.

It is intended to show that Macron can be received enthusiastically – or at least politely – by ordinary people in all parts of the country. One obvious reason for him to get on his bike is to  counter the accusation by the Far Right, Right and Left that he is widely detested.

There will doubtless be incidents in which he is insulted or verbally attacked. Any lapses into arrogance will be widely promoted.

But there are two much greater questions and unknowns.

Will the Indian variant come to France in great strength in the next month and puncture both of Macron’s tyres?

Secondly, do the French like optimistic narratives?


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