January 29, 2019 / 4:58 PM / 5 months ago

Gloom lifts in Elysee as townhall debates re-energise Macron

PARIS (Reuters) - At the peak of France’s “yellow vest” crisis, President Emmanuel Macron’s wife and close aides were shown the Elysee Palace’s nuclear-proof bunker in case the anti-government protesters attempted an assault on the presidency.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting with local residents as part of the "Great National Debate" in Bourg-de-Peage near Valence, France, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot/Pool/File Photo

The startling revelation by Journal du Dimanche, which the president’s office has not denied, shows just how anxious Macron’s inner circle were over the challenge to his authority, as he sought a way to quell popular anger.

Six weeks on, Macron is back on the offensive and opinion polls point to a recovery in his battered popularity. Successful outings to a trio of townhall debates with local mayors and disenchanted voters have re-energised the president and lifted the gloom in his office.

In Bourg-de-Peage in the southern Drome region, Macron turned up unannounced at a local debate, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, and for several hours explained his policies aimed at spurring growth and creating jobs.

“This was the Emmanuel Macron I remembered, the spirit from the campaign was back,” one aide who worked with Macron during the 2016-2017 presidential campaign told Reuters.

The yellow vests, named after high-visibility vests French drivers must keep in their cars, had thrown Macron onto the defensive late last year. Their initial protests - against fuel tax hikes that Macron then scrapped - spiralled into a broader movement against the political elite and inequality, triggering some of the worst street violence in Paris in decades.

Despite the recovery in his fortunes, Macron told reporters on a flight to Egypt on Sunday that he still felt like he was “walking on thin ice”.

That same day, however, 10,000 pro-government supporters marched in the rain in a riposte to the yellow vest protests.

It was a far cry from the million citizens who rallied in support of General Charles de Gaulle at a march that helped end the May 1968 uprising, but still a welcome sight for Macron supporters who had questioned whether he could bounce back.

“A RATHER BEAUTIFUL MOMENT”

In another small victory for Macron, he appears for now to have changed the narrative coming out of France’s influential 24-hour news channels.

BFM TV’s ticker, which Macron’s PR team obsesses over, went from “Macron pushed to the wall” in December to “Will Macron emerge from this victorious?” last weekend.

Even Macron’s opponents acknowledge that he has performed well in the townhall sessions, part of a two-month long national debate Macron promises will influence policymaking, appearing self-assured and confident as the audiences grilled him.

“In terms of form, the performance was a success,” Damien Abad, a lawmaker for the centre-right Les Republicains party told Reuters. “It was a rather beautiful moment. But the French expect more than unanswered questions.”

An Ifop poll last week showed Macron’s popularity up 4 points at 27 percent. Surveys have also shown his party back ahead of the far-right in voting intentions for the May European Parliament elections.

But there is no guarantee that trend will continue, and the yellow vest protests rumble on. Some want to channel their energy into becoming a political force and aim to contest the May EU elections, though that decision has revealed deep splits within their amorphous movement.

Macron, a former investment banker, has been told by advisers to avoid some of the cutting remarks that angered voters and made him look arrogant, but he is still prone to faux pas.

Moreover, further tough reforms lie ahead. Plans for stricter rules on unemployment benefits, a leaner public sector and a merging of varying pension plans into a single system could push voters back onto the streets.

The polls suggest that Macron’s increasingly tough response to the violent street marches has reassured conservative voters unnerved by the scale of the unrest.

“In my constituency, I’m told ‘we’re not always for your policies, but we want this whole saga to end’,” Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, a lawmaker in Macron’s La Republique En Marche, told Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron stands near a man who wears a yellow vest as he attends a meeting with local residents as part of the "Great National Debate" in Bourg-de-Peage near Valence, France, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot/Pool/File Photo

“The French don’t like chaos. The grand debate is a smart way to get out of this through the front door.”

Analysts warn, however, that Macron’s national debate also risks raising expectations.

“Giving people a chance to speak is a big decision, and he’ll have to show that it served a purpose,” Ifop’s Frederic Dabi said.

Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Elizabeth Pineau and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Richard Lough and Gareth Jones

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