PARIS (AP) — In France, when presidents take strolls among the public, they’re described as “taking a crowd bath.” Emmanuel Macron took a very cold one on Wednesday.
Braving hecklers who shouted for him to resign, the French leader threw himself into the uphill task of repairing damage done to his presidency by forcing through unpopular pension reforms, taking his first such “crowd bath” since he enacted the law last week.
The visit to eastern France, close to the border with Germany, was part of a concerted new effort by Macron and his government to put the furor caused by the pension change behind him. Raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 has ignited a months-long firestorm of protest in France.
The uproarious climate of discontent threatens Macron’s ability to get some other planned policies through in the remaining four years of his second and last term. He got to see first-hand how unhappy people still are when he mingled among a crowd in the town of Selestat.
One man who shook his hand didn’t hold back and told Macron that his government is “corrupt” — a claim that Macron immediately denied.
“You’ll soon fall! You’ll see,” the man said.
Working his way along the crowd, which was kept back by a metal barrier, Macron argued for his pension reform but also acknowledged that it was “unpopular.”
“It doesn’t make anyone happy to work more and for longer,” he said.
Still, he insisted that he wouldn’t be cowed from mixing with people. Macron is generally a fan of crowd baths, to the dismay of his security detail, and doesn’t shy away from his critics.
“I’ve known worse,” he said.
In the background, some shouted “Macron, resign!,” or intoned a song that has become an anthem of the retirement protests.
Earlier Wednesday, during a visit to a company specializing in wooden buildings, Macron was met by a silent protest: Lawmaker Emmanuel Fernandes of the far-left France Unbowed party appeared wearing a gag over his mouth bearing the number 49-3, a reference to the constitutional article that the government used to force the new pension age through parliament without a vote.
Later, in the calm of the offices of Selestat’s mayor, Macron repeatedly stressed that France needs to move ahead with other priorities. He cited climate change, drought, education and other issues.
“We’re not always a country that’s calm, but we have to advance,” he told reporters.
By voluntarily facing hostile crowds, Macron appeared to be trying to break the image his critics painted of him as haughty and out-of-touch.
“I’m not deaf,” he said inside town hall. ”There are people who are very angry. I respect them.”
He repeated that not reforming the pension system would have saddled next generations with debt. Unions and other opponents argue that wealthy taxpayers or companies should pitch in more instead, and see the reform as an erosion of France’s social safety net.
Undeterred by the hostile welcome Wednesday, Macron vowed to continue traveling across the country.
“We have to continue explaining and moving ahead with the rest,” he said.
Macron then again braved boos and chants outside to shake a few more hands. He left with protesters shouting, “Retirement at 60: We fought to get it and we’ll fight to keep it.”
The hard-left CGT union planned scattered protest actions for Thursday. All of France’s main unions said they would hold nationwide protests on May 1 to coincide with International Workers’ Day.
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