French turn on Macron, as they grow impatient for results

A recent poll showed French President Emmanuel Macron's approval rating at only 19 per cent, while 60 per cent found his achievements "negative". PHOTO: EPA-EFE

CIVRAY, FRANCE (NYTIMES) - The cheese lady, the melon man, the retiree downing his morning glass, the olive seller, the housewife sipping coffee, and the village mayor submerged by constituents' unpaid bills all agreed that their country's president, Mr Emmanuel Macron, was letting them down.

"Oh, it's a very good government! A very good government for the rich, who are kicking the poor out into the street! It's not a good government for people who are actually working," said Mr Fernand Aso, 60, who sells olives and relishes at the outdoor market squeezed into the little main square of Civray, a town of just a few thousand in central France.

This area, which had voted Socialist before, was among the many that took a chance on the wunderkind former investment banker. Operating outside the established political parties, Mr Macron swept to power 17 months ago at age 39, imploding France's ossified politics amid a yearning to move the country out of years of economic stagnation.

But if the French were willing to give the youthful, little-known Macron a chance for a time, that time appears to be running out. The bloom is off, and not just in this largely rural area of farms, light industry and suburbs surrounding Poitiers, home to a big regional university.

From villages to the district's ancient white limestone towns, across the rolling fields of sunflowers and corn burned brown by a torrid summer, through the French heartland, and even into the cities, the judgment is largely the same: negative.

In recent polls, Mr Macron dropped so sharply in popularity that he dipped even below his much-derided predecessor, the hapless Socialist François Hollande.

A poll released last Monday showed Mr Macron's approval rating at only 19 per cent, while 60 per cent found his achievements "negative", nearly double the figure six months ago.

Today, Civray and its environs demonstrate the souring of opinion on Mr Macron as well as anywhere. Its representative in Parliament was one of the first to break openly with Mr Macron's political movement. Conversations across this emblematic region amount to a buffet of disillusionment.

"In the beginning I thought, 'Yes, he's young, he's dynamic,'" said Ms Anaïs Bonetat, 22, a waitress in an empty cafe in nearby Montmorillon.

"But really, now, I see he's just doing it his way, without even asking us."

A 14th-century bridge over the Gartempe river in the historical town of Montmorillon, France. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Macron, a product of France's top schools, may still command respect on the world stage, where he has positioned himself as the West's indispensable alternative to know-nothing populism. But at home, the young man christened "Jupiter", king of the gods, by the news media and aides half in awe at his total self-confidence and lightning ascent, has fallen very far, very fast.

His descent may hold broader dangers for liberal democracy in Europe at a time when the French President - with his pro-free trade, pro-Europe policies - has set himself up as the opposing pole to the forces of nativism tearing at the European Union.

The far-right Rassemblement National, formerly the National Front, waits in the wings, polling a close second to Mr Macron's movement before elections for the European Parliament next year.

"I'm fearful that the extremes will have the wind in their sails," said Mr Michel Pain, mayor of the tiny nearby town of Saint-Maurice-la-Clouère.

A series of mini scandals this summer - an aide was caught on video hitting a protester, while other video found Mr Macron admonishing ordinary citizens who accost him - has not helped the President.

But the problems are about more than just image; they are substantive.

The overwhelming feeling is that Mr Macron's express train of pro-market reforms - lightening a protective labour code, largely doing away with a wealth tax, ending favoured status for the country's railway workers - has so far not improved the lives of ordinary French people.

Instead, those in the broad economic and social tiers below the elite complain that they are paying the price, as Mr Macron makes France more capitalist, forsaking traditions of equality and fraternity in favour of the rich.

Despite 18 months of reforms, the unemployment rate hovers over 9 per cent. The economy is growing at a meager rate, around 1.7 per cent.

In small-town France, where there has been a steady retreat of services, underway long before Mr Macron took office, the negative feelings are especially sharp. They have been made more acute by his proposal to do away with a crucial tax on which these towns depend, the lodgings tax.

"I'm a little bit perplexed. The numbers just aren't there," said Mr Gilles Bosseboeuf, a retired electronics company manager who is mayor of the village of Champagné-Saint-Hilaire, outside Poitiers.

"Very disappointed, in fact."

Pollsters confirm these sentiments. "He's no longer seen as renewing the office of the presidency," said Mr Frédéric Dabi, a pollster at IFOP, the French Public Opinion Institute. "And public opinion has become extremely demanding. His reforms are seen as unjust. People are thinking that the majority isn't benefiting."

Mr Macron's defenders say that his agenda is for the long haul, and that it is too soon to pass judgment.

"We didn't say that we were going to change the country in a year and half," said Mr Stanislas Guerini, a lawmaker from Paris who is a spokesman for Mr Macron's movement, La République en Marche (The Republic on the Move).

"If we really want to change the country deeply, we've got to take the time to undertake deep reforms," Mr Guerini said.

He pointed to what he called "weak signals" that Mr Macron's programme was having an effect: 40 per cent more young people enrolled in apprenticeship programmes; 15 per cent fewer disputes before labour tribunals; € 15 billion (S$24 billion) invested in job training programmes; and a doubling of classes in troubled areas.

"All of our policies are geared towards emancipation, so that no matter where you start, you will have the same chance as anybody else," said Mr Hervé Berville, another spokesman for Mr Macron's movement.

However, many people complain that the burden of moving the economy forward has been foisted on the less fortunate of an ageing population.

"Macron's falling, and the grace period is finished," said Mayor Pain, who is a retired schoolteacher. "The results just aren't there. There's no improvement in the unemployment rate. France's reindustrialisation is not taking off."

"They're hitting retirees hard," he added - a widely shared perception, and a dangerous one for Mr Macron in a country where most retire at 62 or earlier and the ratio of retired people to workers is expected to be one to one by 2030.

Around 60 per cent of retirees - those earning more than US$25,000 (S$340,000) - have seen a social security tax on their state pensions increase by nearly 2 per cent under Mr Macron, while the value of their pensions is not keeping pace with inflation.

"He's nicking money from me," said Mr Roger Coquillaud, 65, a retired army officer at the modest central cafe in Civray.

Facing angry reactions, the government said this month that it would exempt some 300,000 retirees from the tax increase.

Mr Macron's perceived imperious manner - in a country where toppling leaders is part of the national DNA - has only compounded the fears of social and economic slippage.

The persistent litany of complaints about him - that he is arrogant, that he doesn't listen to the less fortunate, that he is authoritarian, that his policies favour the well-to-do - are self-reinforcing and feed on one another.

"When you've already got a bad opinion of a politician, the slightest thing can add to it. There's a bad atmosphere around it," said Mr Jean-Michel Clément, the local representative in Parliament who broke with Mr Macron over the President's toughening line on immigration, and who has been effectively shut out ever since.

The cross-fertilising element in the complaints about Mr Macron was evident in the responses of many.

"For me, I think he's moving further and further away from the population," said Mr Jean-Marie Peigner, a retired phone company worker who is now the part-time mayor of the adjoining village of Saint-Pierre-d'Exideuil. "I have quite a few who regret having voted for him."

Among the regretful is Mr Bernard Blanchet, 61, who directs a music school in Montmorillon.

"There's a kind of spirit of royalism in him," said Mr Blanchet, who had stopped between two market stalls to discuss politics.

Mr Macron once declared to an interviewer that the French missed their king - forgetting that they had also executed him.

"You can't disagree with him," Mr Blanchet said. "It's clear: I won't vote for him again."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.