Macron heads to France's heartlands to kickstart reelection drive

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BAGNÈRES-DE-BIGORRE, France — Emmanuel Macron smelled a piece of local ham and popped it into his mouth with delight, then sang a traditional song with the dozen villagers sitting with him beside a road nestled in the Pyrenees.

It was a folksier side to the normally buttoned-up French president but he was on familiar turf, near his cherished grandmother’s home in this mountain region where he spent time as a child.

“The Pyrenees are lands I am very attached to, I have memories here and family still around here, as well as friends,” Macron said. “I know these landscapes very well.”  

His trip to the heartlands last week left no doubt: Macron’s bid for reelection is well underway, even though he won’t formally announce his run until next year, after the launch of France’s presidency of the EU Council in January.

Macron’s visit to Bagnères-de-Bigorre was the fifth stop on a personal tour of France that started in June, coinciding with the Tour de France cycling race. It offered the president, who is often criticized as arrogant and disconnected, the chance to seem more accessible, surrounded by local friends and enjoying one of the country’s most popular sporting events.  

In taking “the pulse of the street,” as his advisers describe these visits, Macron has come face to face with the two biggest obstacles he must surmount to defeat his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen and other potential rivals: the coronavirus pandemic and a nagging lack of clarity among voters over what Macron really stands for.   

With Le Pen almost certain to be his second-round opponent in the April 2022 election, despite a surge in support for mainstream parties in recent regional votes, the stakes could hardly be higher: the far right has never scored so high 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 in the run-off by only 12 percentage points. In 2017, Macron won with a roughly 32 point lead on Le Pen.

Even in this part of France where Macron’s support generally runs high, some who turned out to see him said they were still unsure.  

“I’m waiting to hear what he tells us today, what he has in mind moving forward,” said Vivian, a middle-aged special-needs educator, just before Macron arrived for the round of ham tasting and chanson.  

Some of Macron’s close advisers concede that ultimately he may be his own toughest opponent — never too far from uttering impromptu remarks that put off constituents by making him seem detached or just plain dislikeable.  

On Thursday, he came close when he said, in essence, that those in France who refuse to be vaccinated were effectively failing 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’s what being a nation is,” Macron told reporters when asked about protests over his push to make vaccination a requirement for access to many public and leisure spaces.

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With a fourth coronavirus wave underway and threatening to derail the economic recovery that could be vital to his reelection effort, Macron last week said the vaccine would become compulsory for health workers, and all citizens would need proof of vaccination, or a negative test, to enter restaurants, or travel on planes and trains.

The president is betting heavily on an economic upturn.  

With a well-rehearsed stump speech, Macron has hit the road highlighting policy changes implemented before the pandemic and the €100 billion government bailoutprogram he has put in place to juice the economy since the virus struck.  

Macron’s goal is to instill confidence in his ability to steer the country through the next phase of the crisis, thereby persuading voters to grant him another five-year term.

“We passed reforms that were sometimes unpopular,” Macron told employees at an industrial plant in Bagnères-de-Bigorre. “It’s what made France competitive to attract investments.” 

The plant is owned by Spanish company CAF, which manufactures rail equipment and has invested €25 million in the site, aiming to create 250 jobs over the next three years.  

“We are supporting this factory through Relaunch France and for the long haul,” Macron said, referring to a government investment of more than €700,000 in the factory through the recovery fund. “I support you.”

Voters are not so sure they’ll reciprocate.

At least twice on previous stops, Macron came face to face with the virulent antipathy he inspires among some in France.  

In June, he was slapped by a man identifying as a right-wing “patriot” outside a professional high school in a small southeastern town. On another visit, a father of two unemployed youths attacked Macron.

“Disabused France!” the middle-aged man shouted. He was complaining that despite having funded his children’s education, they were still jobless and living at home. “Well done Macron! You won’t last much longer!”

To counter such hostility, the government has launched a website quantifying the progress of local services across the country, like internet connectivity and fighting violence against women. The Elysée now has a monthly newsletter that rounds up “good news and citizen initiatives that help France shine.” It’s titled “cock-a-doodle-doo,” a reference to the country’s rooster national symbol.  

Campaign tactic and themes 

Macron has set out three themes for the rest of his term: economic recovery, reform, and social welfare. They aim to reach out to the diverse mix of center-left, center-right and green-tinged voters that he’ll need to win over to secure a second mandate. 

His chances for reelection will probably come down to his ability to mobilize them as he did in 2017, by ticking a disparate array of boxes.  

To that end, the president has moved sharply to the right on crime, security and Islamism, while also banking left by joking around with hip young YouTubers about drugs, passing progressive legislation on gender rights and promising to continue generous government handouts to support the pandemic-battered economy. 

Those please-all tactics are a big gamble as he faces Le Pen’s more focused right-wing nationalist message, although she too is looking to expand her populist base to tempt more traditional conservative voters who are disaffected with Macron.  

Macron supporters hope a head-to-head match-up with Le Pen will mean mainstream voters will overlook any political zig-zagging 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 cast a ballot. Others fed up with the pandemic could vote for anyone but the incumbent. 

“I believe there is a possibility of a revolt through the ballot boxes, a vote based on mood rather than reason,” acknowledged a Macron-supporting senator, who added: “Barring a better option, I will reelect him.”  

There are signs the general public isn’t feeling as generous.  

Record numbers abstained in the regional elections held last month and Macron’s party, which hasn’t succeeded in building a solid local base, was routed. That’s added to concern left-of-center voters, who were crucial in helping Macron win in 2017, are so disillusioned that they will stay home in 2022 even if their abstention lets Le Pen sneak in.  

“For the first time, voters could really abstain, because Macron’s presidential term was extremely divisive on socioeconomic issues,” said Mathieu Gallard, research director at the Ipsos polling institute. “If he becomes divisive on identity and immigration, left-wing voters won’t have many good reasons to support him in the run-off like they did in 2017.” 

Unease behind the scenes 

Behind Macron’s efforts to project a sense of control and optimism, there is trepidation 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’m dreading what will happen, the bankruptcies, when we’re going to start cutting government aid just as the presidential campaign will be kicking off in 2022.” 

The president himself, however, is not showing any self-doubt. 

“What Macron says privately is that those who voted for him will vote for him again,” said the senator who has discussed the issue with the president and asked for anonymity to share details of the conversation.  

For now, Macron is focusing on the rather positive response he is getting on his thinly-veiled campaign trail.

In Lourdes, the last stop on his travels last week, a man in a crowd of over 1,000 outside the town’s famed Roman Catholic sanctuary approached the president to thank him. 

“You are doing a remarkable job,” he said. “Even if many think the opposite. I heartily congratulate you.”  

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