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Macron marks WWI armistice, while trying to win back French voters

Jacques Demarton, AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron attends a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on November 11, 2017 in Paris.

Emmanuel Macron has kicked off a seven-day tour of Northeastern France for the WWI armistice centenary commemorations. At the same time, the embattled French president will try to conquer back the French. Will it work?

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On Sunday, a week before as many 80 heads of state meet in Paris on Armistice Day for the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the French president embarked on one of the longest national official tours made by a contemporary French leader that will take him to 16 towns and across former battlefields stretching from the Somme to Verdun.

Away from the international limelight, Macron – whose tour has already been dubbed ‘operation reconquer’ by the French media - will also try to regain some popularity on the domestic front when he visits areas ravaged by deindustrialisation and unemployment.

"Each stop will be an opportunity to speak about the current concerns in those areas, which are trying to bounce back from de-industrialisation or major changes in agriculture," an aide to Macron told AFP last week.

But experts question whether or not this tour can make any difference.

After a post-election honeymoon, the French president’s approval ratings are languishing at a dangerously low 20 percent. The former banker has failed to shake off his image as a president for the rich, reinforced by the accusation that the fiscal measures he introduced early on in his tenure only benefitted the wealthy.

And in recent months, he has been caught on camera making petulant and arrogant remarks when challenged by voters about, for example, unemployment. These videos rapidly went viral and sparked outrage.

'The trip is out-of-sync with the current climate'

“I am sceptical about this tour. The idea of the trip in itself is good, but it’s currently a bit out-of-sync with the concerns of the public and zeitgeist,” Jean Pétaux, a politics specialist at Sciences Po Bordeaux University, told FRANCE 24.

“We are living in a time of 24 hour news and the economic and political context means that what the French are most concerned with at the moment is the price of petrol. Petrol is a critical part of daily life and it crystallises a divided France – on the one side, there is rural France where vehicles are key, and on the other, there is a more urban France which uses public transport and doesn’t understand the problem,” Pétaux said.

Aside from the city of Strasbourg where the tour began on Monday and Paris where it culminates next Sunday, Macron will only be stopping in the small towns and communities plagued by the problems facing ‘rural’ France, far from the concerns of the country’s urban population.

For example, the president will pass close to the Arcoval steelworks, which was once one of Europe’s biggest, but has just filed for bankruptcy.

Macron is treading in difficult waters

He will also visit Charleville-Mézières, a town with spiralling unemployment and where the far-right won the first round of the presidential elections in 2016.

“Macron is aware that he will be in hostile territory,” a source close to the president told Le Parisien. “But in the same way that France rebuilt itself after the war, the country can now rebuild itself again”.

But with cameras filming his every move and the press waiting to pounce, ‘operation reconquer’ could end up backfiring, pundits believe.

“Perhaps Macron may succeed, and perhaps he can get closer to the communities problems and address unemployment, but it could be dangerous. Saving some jobs in one region could create frustration and jealousy in other areas. And the head of state rarely gets credit no matter what,” Pétaux said.

Macron may struggle to control the impact and image of his tour on the domestic stage but on the international stage, the armistice commemorations are a major international event which will add to the French president’s diplomatic clout.

The first armistice commemoration in Strasbourg, near the German border, saw a concert in the city’s famed gothic cathedral, with the German president in attendance to celebrate the friendship between the two countries who were once enemies.

On Tuesday, Macron will honour the former colonial troops who fought alongside the French with Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in Reims, a city defended by the African soldiers.

He will be joined by the UK Prime Minister Theresa May at the World War I battlefield of the Somme on Friday and by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel the next day in the village of Rethondes, where the armistice was signed.

The pinnacle of the commemoration will be on Sunday when between approximately 80 world leaders will arrive in Paris marking a century to the day since the guns fell silent.

Macron will warn against the tide of populism

Their faces will be beamed around the world for the tribute which will take place at the ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’ on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The leaders will then remain in the French capital to attend a three-day peace forum.

During his armistice ‘marathon’, Macron is also expected to make use of the colossal international exposure to warn against the tide of populism sweeping Europe, six months ahead of European Parliamentary elections.

The French president, who is a defender of multilateralism and is strongly pro-European has insisted that lessons must be learned from these commemorations to help to shed light on the current political climate.

“Europe faces the risk of being destroyed by the disease of nationalism and manipulated by foreign forces, and ultimately we lose our identity and sovereignty,” he told Ouest France. “I want to honour and learn the lessons of our history. This has been about celebration, remembrance and our future".

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