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Challenges ahead for Macron as France's politicians head back to work

Eric Feferberg, AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron climbs the front steps of the Élysée Palace in Paris, on July 31, 2017.
Text by: Valentin GRAFF
5 min

French President Emmanuel Macron gathered his cabinet Monday for the "rentrée politique" – the back-to-work time for government and opposition forces alike.


A key objective of Macron’s Élysée Palace cabinet seminar? To hone the government’s public relations strategy and steer clear of blunders in the tricky stretch to come.

In August, the rookie head of state weathered yet another dip in his approval ratings. In just three months, Macron has dropped from a favourable opinion rate of 62 percent to a lowly 40 percent, according to the IFOP polling firm. That plunge came even as the French president has yet to endure his very first rentrée politique, poised to be a tough one with obstacles altogether thornier than the ones he faced – not without difficulty – over the summer months.

For the French government, “The real difficulties are on the way. The real risks of falling out with public opinion are coming up,” says Gaël Sliman, who heads the Odoxa polling institute.

At Macron’s cabinet meeting on Monday, ministers were due to study up on the reforms each must usher through from now into 2018, and not least the heavy cost-cutting expected next year in order to meet the European Stability Pact pledge to maintain France’s deficit at or below three percent of GDP. Ministers will likely, too, be focusing hard on talking points, crucial to winning public acceptance of the reforms to come.

Macron and his entourage have already begun dropping just such mollifying language. Visiting Romania last week, the president declared, “France is not a country that can be reformed; it’s a country that hates reforms. One must propose [instead] to transform the country deeply to give it true European leadership.”

>> Read more: Macron shifts communication strategy as popularity plummets

In a similar vein, Macron’s entourage has said the president “considers France to be a country that one doesn’t reform, but for which there are moments of brutal rupture during which one can profoundly transform things. But those moments are hard”.

The semantic difference between “reform”, on the one hand, and “transformation” or “rupture” on the other may seem somewhat artificial. But it does reflect the government’s state of mind, Denis Muzet, a sociologist, tells FRANCE 24.

“’Reform’ is a very loaded term [in France] and a term that has been depleted after the presidential terms of Nicolas Sarkozy [2007-2012] and François Hollande [2012-2017], neither of whom succeeded in getting their accomplishments across,” Muzet says. “‘Transformation’, meanwhile, isn’t as pejorative a term, if one takes the time to educate [the public about the policies] and explain what transformation is to be applied to France, with an eye to attenuating the anxiety-provoking aspects that could worry conservatives on the right and left alike.”

At stake for Macron is whether he can make the sale to the French people and gain public acceptance for this purported transformation. To do that, as he told French newspaper Le Monde, the president is ready to change his public relations strategy, saying the “time for scarcity” – when Macron’s public pronouncements were intentionally kept to an above-the-fray minimum – is “finished”. Macron says he plans to speak more directly to the public, perhaps twice a month. “The rentrée is a political moment when it is legitimate for the president to speak. There are things that have to be said in order to provide a vision and to set a course and to set the delivery dates for the reforms to come,” Macron’s entourage told the paper.

Evidently anxious not to make the same mistakes as his predecessor – and one-time political mentor – the Socialist Hollande, Macron nevertheless managed to string together a series of setbacks over the summer. The freshly elected Macron clashed early on with France’s veteran armed forces chief, General Pierre de Villiers, over cuts to the defence budget. To mark his authority, the president ultimately obtained the general’s resignation – but instead the episode appeared to damage Macron’s image.

A poorly sold plan to cut housing aid by five euros a month didn’t help; ministers insisted the decrease would be “only” five euros, while charitable organisations insisted that, for a family living under the poverty line, those five euros can make a big difference. One far-leftist La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France) lawmaker delivered the coup de grace when he set out five euros’ worth of food shopping on the benches of the National Assembly in session – a potent show-and-tell.

In that context, the untimely debate over granting an official status as France’s First Lady to Macron’s wife, Brigitte, only raised new ire.

The months to come could be even more hazardous, starting with controversial decrees on labour reform due Thursday. Political rivals are divided: La France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has called for demonstrations on September 23 against what he characterises as Macron’s “social-welfare coup d’état”.

Meanwhile, Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris, has appealed for Macron to be given time, saying “it is too early to make appraisals”.

Two unions groups, meanwhile, have already said they would march in protest: Solidaires on August 30 and the CGT on September 12. Others could join that movement if Thursday’s reform decrees prove too harsh for their liking.

Moreover, the state and social-security budget bills are due to be tabled at the end of September. Both are slated to make good on government cost-cutting pledges – a risky exercise that will require considerable educating and explaining (not to mention tactful diplomacy) – on the part of this fledgling government.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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