Memorial tour turns into PR setback for Emmanuel Macron

FT Harriet Agnew in Paris 7 HOURS AGO

It was supposed to be an opportunity for President Emmanuel Macron to play the role of statesman, to rise above the cut and thrust of politics, and win back the respect of an increasingly sceptical French population: a week-long tour to mark 100 years since the end of the first world war.

Starting with a concert of Beethoven and Debussy at Strasbourg cathedral, and ending on Sunday with an armistice day commemoration at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the programme took in visits to the battlefields of Verdun, Morhange and the Somme, the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette national cemetery and local factories.

But for all the attempted solemnity and martial tone, Mr Macron’s memorial tour has turned into a public relations debacle, confirming his propensity for making gaffes while drawing the scorn of ordinary French voters over his perceived metropolitan disregard for their pocketbook concerns.

Rather than dissipate public anger in his visits to areas of France where far-right support is strongest, the events of the past few days appear to have concentrated it. Mr Macron’s government is now braced for a day of national protests next Saturday ostensibly over fuel price rises but potentially about the litany of other grievances held against the president, whose approval rating has fallen below 30 per cent.

Fresh from a few days off amid rumours of burnout and exhaustion, the political storm began on Wednesday when Mr Macron paid tribute to Marshal Philippe Pétain, who won glory leading French troops in the defence of Verdun in 1916 but ignominy as head of France’s Vichy government that collaborated with Nazi occupiers during the second world war.

“It is legitimate that we honour the marshals who led France to victory” in 1918, Mr Macron said. He described Pétain as “a great soldier”, while conceding that he made “disastrous choices” during the Nazi occupation when he helped send tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths in extermination camps.

The resulting outrage, particularly from the left, included a rebuke from the socialist former president François Hollande. “History does not single out one stage, however glorious a military career. It judges the immense and contemptible responsibility of the Marshal who deliberately used his name and prestige as cover for treason, collaboration and the deportation of thousands of Jews from France.” Francis Kalifat, president of Crif, the body that represents France’s 400,000 Jews, described the tribute as “shocking”, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, called Pétain “a traitor and an anti-Semite”, adding: “Macron, this time you’ve gone too far!” The Elysée Palace later backpedalled and insisted there had never been any plans to honour Petain at any ceremony.

The controversies did not stop there. Wherever he went on his tour, Mr Macron met angry members of the public disgruntled by a lack of improvement in their daily lives.

On Thursday, as the Elysée struggled with the fallout from the Pétain comments, the president was given a hostile reception at a Renault factory near Maubeuge in northern France as he attempted to outline his economic policies.

Defending his choices to help “those who invest”, Mr Macron was booed by a trade unionist who called out “you’re not welcome here”.

“With the increase in petrol you take back with one hand what you give the other,” he shouted. The tussle overshadowed the announcement of a €400m investment in the plant and the creation of 200 jobs.

Mr Macron defended his government’s record on fuel prices, which have largely gone up because of rising oil prices rather than increased taxation.

“I prefer the taxation of fuel to the taxation of labour,” he said in an interview with the Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace newspaper, adding that his policies reflected environmental considerations: “The same people who are complaining about the rise in fuel prices are also demanding that we fight air pollution because their children are suffering from diseases.”

But his green concerns have found little support, particularly in rural areas where dependence on the car is so extensive. Many drivers are still angry at a cut in the speed limit on secondary roads this year from 90kph to 80kph. Some motorists are planning blockades and go-slows next weekend to bring the country to a halt.

Yet as the week-long tour drew to a close and Mr Macron prepared to welcome dignitaries including Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday, he ploughed on single-mindedly.

Speaking on Thursday at the Renault factory, he said: “I know some people are angry, I know some people will always seek division, but I am responsible for one thing.

“I will keep going — on and on and on.”