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POLITICS

‘Campaigning’ Macron to give primetime interview on French TV

French President Emmanuel Macron is yet to declare he will run for a second term in next year's election, but intentions are no longer in doubt and his unofficial campaigning is drawing fire.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in a facemask, greets people in a crowd in the town of Vichy, central France
Not campaigning - President Macron meets residents in Vichy, central France, on December 8, 2021. Photo: Ludovic Marin / AFP

After a rare two-hour press conference last week to outline his European ambitions, the 43-year-old head of state is to sit down for a long prime-time TV interview on domestic policy on Wednesday evening.

For a leader who has always kept the media at arm’s length and once theorised his role as acting like Jupiter, the Roman god of the sky, the sudden burst of transparency has not gone unnoticed.

READ ALSO OPINION: Macron won’t admit it, but he’s on the election campaign trail

Neither have a string of visits to small-town and rural France where he has wandered through picturesque cobbled streets, stopping to chat to shopkeepers or drinking wine in local cafes.

When asked again by a reporter last week whether he would seek re-election, he initially employed humour, saying the question was “a sign of affection, a hidden desire, almost an appeal”.

“In the time we are living through, the most important thing is that our institutions continue to function in the most stable way possible,” he continued, evading the question.

Like predecessors including Francois Mitterrand and Nicolas Sarkozy, Macron appears intent on playing for time, using the presidential megaphone and the benefits of his office until as late as possible.

France’s role holding the rotating presidency of the European Union from January 1st, which will see Macron set the official EU agenda, is also another factor favouring a late declaration.

READ ALSO What does it mean for France to head the Council of the EU?

“Emmanuel Macron is president of the republic, elected for five years, not four and a half,” one of Macron’s closest allies, leading LREM MP Christophe Castaner, told television channel France 2 on Tuesday.

“That the president is thinking is normal, that he’s contemplating things is normal, but in the meantime he’s president of the republic,” he added.

For government spokesman Gabriel Attal, “not campaigning is more of a disadvantage than an advantage for us because the reality is that it gives us less opportunity to respond to criticism.”

Public opinion

Although a late declaration was always in Macron’s plans, aides say, the mood of the electorate and the dynamics of his challengers could also change his calculations.

For the first time, a poll by the Elabe survey group last week showed the former investment banker losing the second round of the election on April 24 to right-winger Valerie Pecresse from the Republicans party.

Pecresse, the combative head of the greater Paris region and a former minister under Sarkozy, has enjoyed a huge bounce in the polls since clinching her party’s nomination on December 4.

READ ALSO France’s new right-wing presidential nominee surges in polls

She has led criticism about Wednesday night’s TV interview on the TF1 channel and complains about an uneven playing field.

“We can’t have a president-candidate who has television channels open up for him whenever he wants it and is campaigning for hours on end, while his opponents get five minutes on a panel to respond to him,” she said on Monday.

She has promised to complain to France’s media regulator, the CSA, which monitors the time given to presidential candidates to ensure each of them gets a fair billing.

Attack lines

As the election campaign shifts in Pecresse’s favour, she has become the preferred target of Macron’s allies, who have been rehearsing different attack lines.

Some have portrayed her as posh and out-of-touch, or committed to an unrealistic programme of public sector cuts.

The danger posed to Macron from Eric Zemmour, a far-right pundit, appears to have waned after his dramatic entry into French politics in September.

READ ALSO Could a French electoral rule stop Zemmour from running for president?

Veteran far-right leader Marine Le Pen also risks being squeezed out of the race if the Les Republicains candidate can maintain her momentum.

Some in Pecresse’s camp believe the timing of Macron’s interview was deliberately chosen to clash with her scheduled appearance on a different TV channel, which has now been cancelled.

“Valerie Pecresse has become an obsession for Emmanuel Macron, even to the point of dictating when he plans his appearances,” an aide to Pecresse told  AFP this week, on condition of anonymity.

READ ALSO OPINION: Why the Left in France has declined into electoral irrelevanc

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POLITICS

Burkina junta chief denies diplomatic split from France

Burkina Faso's junta leader said on Friday his country had not severed diplomatic ties with France, which he has asked to withdraw its forces, and denied Russian Wagner mercenaries were in the country.

Burkina junta chief denies diplomatic split from France

Former colonial power France had special forces based in the capital Ouagadougou, but its presence had come under intense scrutiny as anti-French sentiment in the region grows, with Paris withdrawing its ambassador to Burkina over the junta’s demands.

“The end of diplomatic agreements, no!” Captain Ibrahim Traore said in a television interview with Burkinabe journalists. “There is no break in diplomatic relations or hatred against a particular state.”

Traore went on to deny that there were mercenaries from the Wagner Group deployed in Burkina Faso, even as the junta has nurtured ties with Moscow.

Wagner, an infamous Russian mercenary group founded in 2014, has been involved in conflicts in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Ukraine.

“We’ve heard everywhere that Wagner is in Ouagadougou,” he said, adding that it was a rumour “created so that everybody would distance themselves from us”.

“We have our Wagner, it is the VDP that we recruit,” he said, referring to the Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland civilian auxiliaries. “They are our Wagner.”

He said that “all the people want is their sovereignty, to live with dignity. It doesn’t mean leaving one country for another.”

Paris confirmed last month that its special forces troops, deployed to help fight a years-long jihadist insurgency, would leave within a month.

Bloody conflict

A landlocked country in the heart of West Africa’s Sahel, Burkina Faso is one of the world’s most volatile and impoverished countries.

It has been struggling with a jihadist insurgency that swept in from neighbouring Mali in 2015. Thousands of civilians, troops and police have been killed, more than two million people have fled their homes, and around 40 percent of the country lies outside the government’s control.

Anger within the military at the mounting toll sparked two coups in 2022, the most recent of which was in September, when 34-year-old Traore seized power.

He is standing by a pledge made by the preceding junta to stage elections for a civilian government by 2024.

After the ruling junta in Mali forced French troops out last year, the army officers running neighbouring Burkina Faso followed suit, asking Paris to empty its garrison.

Under President Emmanuel Macron, France was already drawing down its troops across the Sahel region, which just a few years ago numbered more than 5,000, backed up with fighter jets, helicopters and infantry fighting vehicles.

About 3,000 remain, but the forced departures from Mali and Burkina Faso — as well as the Central African Republic to the south last year — underline how anti-French winds are gathering force.

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