Macron Fears Europe's War Demons as Change Enrages Voters

(Bloomberg) -- President Emmanuel Macron is touring France’s World War I battlefields this week to highlight the dangers posed by the resurgence of nationalism in Europe.

But voters aren’t interested in that.

Macron Fears Europe's War Demons as Change Enrages Voters

They are more concerned about the president addressing the industrial decline that has ravaged France’s northeast since the 1970s than seeing him join their commemorations of the trench warfare that cost millions of lives a century ago.

When Macron warns of the global threat of climate change, angry voters want to know why his struggle to meet his budget commitments means a hike in their gasoline taxes and a squeeze on retirees’ incomes. Meanwhile, warnings about the lessons of Europe’s bloody history are drowned out by nationalist promises of an easier future once France can defend its borders again.

"The current politics doesn’t work for me,” said a gray-haired woman who approached the president during a stop in Charleville-Mezieres on Wednesday. "I’m 57 years old and I have never been to protest in the streets. Never. But because of you I have to."

With Macron’s popularity is plumbing new lows almost every week, a Nov. 17 demonstration against rising gasoline prices is threatening to turning into a national protest against the president. But he refuses to veer from his course.

"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," Macron said Thursday at at Renault SA auto factory near the town of Maubeuge.

Macron Fears Europe's War Demons as Change Enrages Voters

"You’re not welcome here," shouted out a worker as he spoke. "We got here without you."

"I’ll stand by those who fight," Macron responded, looking to calm the man. "You who fight every day, who want to live in dignity from your work and do more to ensure a better future for your kids."
Ever since beating nationalist leader Marine Le Pen to take power in May last year the French leader has tried to gather around him people he thinks will be able to stand up against the lure of extremism in the "troubled times" that he sees ahead.

This week Macron is using the centenary of the end of World War I to make his case.

Battlefields and Beethoven

He started Sunday in Strasbourg cathedral sitting alongside German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier for a concert of German and French composers Beethoven and Debussy. On Monday he paid tribute at a soldiers memorial in the battlefield of Mohrange then went to visit a factory and dined with local politicians. On Tuesday he gave a short speech at the village hall in Eparges, where he praise the young people who died in the war before visiting nearby battle fields.

In the president’s vision, the threat of Europe’s newly assertive nationalists adds urgency to his push to reform France’s economy: he knows that he needs to prove to voters that his liberal, pro-market, pro-European recipe can work before they get another chance to consider the attraction of Le Pen’s populism in 2022.

So his eight-day tour mixes armistice commemorations, hard talk with struggling locals, vaulting European ambitions and visits to high-tech factories. Thursday also included a lunch with high-school teachers and a tribute to fallen soldiers at the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette national cemetery.

The tour ends this Sunday when world leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel converge on Paris for a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe and a “Peace Forum.”

Nationalist Challenge

But the fight against what Macron calls the the "dark forces" of nativism is not going well.

Recent polls have shown his party, The Republic on the March, running neck and neck with Le Pen’s National Front in next May’s European elections.

As he met with frustrated borders this week across the region where he himself grew up, Macron’s answer was the same over and over again: there will be no deviation from the tough policies that he believes are needed to get the economy going and consolidate the European project.

Among the bomb craters that still scar the fields around Eparges he talked of World War I veterans who saw their towns consumed by a second devastating war less than a generation later.

"If we aren’t careful the same demons that are still running through our societies, ready to carry out their work of chaos and death” will be back, he said.

But it was more prosaic concerns animating the crowd of some 200 people in Charleville-Mezieres. In the pouring rain, the president spent 30 minutes talking to people about their problems. To one woman, he explained how to get state rebates on a new car purchase.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.