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From war president to man of the people: Macron (finally) hits the campaign trail

DIJON, France — Emmanuel Macron had a brief word of support for Ukrainian protesters who had come to meet him as he stepped out of his car in Dijon, but he quickly moved on.

The French president was in the eastern city to meet locals from a council estate in Fontaine d’Ouche, keen to show that he can listen to the needs of the public. Some were there to take selfies with the president, others to complain. Many said the last couple of years had been particularly tough.

“Put yourself in the shoes of an ordinary French family, it’s terrible,” said one man, who accosted Macron as he glad-handed locals on his way to a debate with charity workers and officials.

“It’s horrible to do the shopping, to fill up your tank. I used to get decent pay, I was able to go on holiday, save money. But that’s no longer the case, I’ve become a poor worker.”

The encounter summed up the paradox of this presidential election. With less than two weeks before voters head to the polls to cast their first-round votes on April 10, the war in Ukraine has sucked up much of the airtime but voters still mostly care about jobs and the cost of living, issues that are exacerbated by the Russian invasion. Macron faces a likely run-off vote on April 24 against far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, who has campaigned consistently on the cost of living.

Macron’s answer on Monday was inflexible.  

“I have no magical answer, the increase in fixed costs is a tragedy for the middle classes,” he told the man who was worried about spiraling costs. But he noted that his government had put billions of euros on the table to protect French citizens from more price spikes, particularly on their energy bills.

“If you take electricity, if we hadn’t taken measures your bill wouldn’t just have increased like gas, it would have doubled,” Macron said.

The president has been accused in recent days of dodging the campaign and using the war in Ukraine to avoid going head-to-head with his rival candidates. Macron has led, albeit in vain, a diplomatic push to get Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine and, last week, he announced a humanitarian operation to evacuate the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol “in the coming days.”

While his rivals have taken to the stump in a campaign largely overshadowed by external events, Macron’s team has pumped out photos from the Elysée of their man hunkered down in his office, unshaven and sporting a French paratrooper sweatshirt. Critics have been quick to suggest he is copying the look from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and is using the war to boost his chances of reelection.

Added to that, he only officially declared his candidacy earlier this month and unveiled his campaign platform very recently. While other candidates have debated the future of France and met voters at local markets, Macron has not held any rallies and has rarely figured on the campaign trail.

Despite all that, Macron is the clear favorite, with polls suggesting he will win 28 percent of the first-round vote, ahead of Le Pen’s 19 percent share. In a run-off, Macron would likely beat his far-right rival by 58 percent to 42 percent.

Speaking on the sidelines of the president’s Dijon visit, François Patriat, a senator from Macron’s La République en Marche party, defended the decision to focus on international issues and not take part in TV debates with rivals ahead of the first round of voting.

“Debating is not fighting with 10 other candidates in a TV studio,” Patriat said. “The real debate is between the candidate and the French people. He puts his proposals on the table, and they decide.”

Giving back buying power

In Dijon, a traditional left-wing stronghold, Macron met students on vocational courses and parents on benefits at a council estate, and offered a clear message: his medicine was bitter, but it was the right one to save France.

“For the first time since the 1970s, we might win the battle to reach full employment,” he told officials and charity workers. Last year, France’s unemployment rate dropped to 7.4 percent, its lowest level since 2008.

“This is possible for the first time in decades. And it’s good for buying power, because it’s those who don’t have a job who struggle the most to make ends meet,” he said.  

After a five-year term marked by the Yellow Jackets protest movement, the coronavirus pandemic and now the war in Ukraine, Macron is going back to basics to campaign on proposals to cut taxes, generate wealth, invest massively to create jobs, and raise the retirement age.

But his proposals risk appearing less generous than those of his opponents, both on the far left and the far right. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon is offering to increase the minimum monthly wage to €1,400 if he is elected, and Le Pen has promised to slash taxes on fuel to help a broad swathe of French households.

And in Fontaine d’Ouche, many say such proposals are tempting.

“Mélenchon offers something completely different,” said Lunes, a lorry driver. “He wants to help people who are struggling, who can’t find a job. I’ve been in that situation, it’s a real struggle.”

But he added that he has since found a job, and reckons Macron’s management of recent crises hasn’t been bad.

“I’m still thinking,” he said. “The first round is in two weeks, that’s when I’ll decide.”

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