Macron Pulls Out All the Stops in Rail Reform—Even Doing TV

In his first year in office, Emmanuel Macron snubbed local mainstream media -- granting few interviews and taking to Twitter and Facebook to directly address the French.
Now, as rail and airline strikes disrupt transportation, retirees hurl insults at him, students demonstrate and unions take to the airwaves to deplore what they say are his attempts to meddle with the “French way of life,” Macron is joining the media fray.
Emmanuel Macron
Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg
Faced with the biggest test of his presidency yet, Macron will appear on television twice this week -- at 1 p.m. on Thursday and in the evening on Sunday -- to hammer home to the French that his reform of national rail operator SNCF and his plans for everything from speed limits, taxes for retirees and rural education are the right thing to do. Trouble is, his communication blitz may backfire with a population weary of his endless talk of reforms.
“The double-interview plan is too much, too dramatic, too unilateral,” said Dominique Wolton, a researcher for CNRS, a state-backed research institute. “People in cities like Blois or Charenton will have the same uncomfortable feeling: Their president telling them ‘I am always right.’ People are resisting the message now because all they hear is: you must change, you must reform and I, Macron, am the only one who can do it.”
That’s especially since a majority of French people accept that the government needs to carry out the reforms. An Ifop survey published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche showed that 44 percent backed the SNCF strike, while 62 percent of those polled say the government needs to push the changes through with no concessions. Macron’s plan is to end SNCF’s monopoly and progressively scrap social advantages for rail workers.

Modernizing France

For the 40-year-old president, whose reforms so far have included changes to workplace rules and slashing taxes on business and investment, winning the battle over labor and student unions is vital as he seeks his place in history as the leader who “modernized France.” How he does it will be key.
Macron is contending with his fiercest social unrest yet, with a convergence of protests from SNCF workers, Air France employees asking for a pay rise, garbage collectors, the energy sector, and universities -- the cradle of the 1968 social unrest that destabilized the government of then-president Charles de Gaulle.
To top that, small-town voters are upset with the government’s push to cut the maximum speed on secondary routes to to 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour) from 90, and plans to reduce the number of rural classrooms.

Mainstream Media

Macron’s plan to bombard the air waves with two appearances in a week is unusual for a French president. His appearance on Thursday on TF1 TV’s weekly afternoon show -- popular with older, rural viewers -- is targeted at retirees, who’re angry about his move to increase their taxes. The last time a French president was on the popular midday news show was in 1995, when then-president Jacques Chirac sought to defend his reforms.
Macron will also do a joint interview with the 24-hour all-news channel BFM TV and the web-only investigative news site Mediapart. That audience will be more urban and younger.
The president’s newfound affection for mainstream media may stem from the widespread coverage of the strikes. Unions, fearing the privatization of SNCF, staged a fourth day of walkouts at the rail operator Monday. They plan to strike for two days a week until the end of June, with the support of an online crowd funding campaign that has raised more than 530,000 euros ($650,000).

Media Mistrust

“Macron played the card of mistrust towards the media to create a monarch-like distance during the campaign,” said Arnaud Mercier, a professor of communication at the Paris II Assas university. “The strategy doesn’t seem to work as well for a president.”
Opinion polls published this month show Macron’s popularity sliding, falling on average by about 3 points. Pollster Elabe puts his approval rating at 39 percent.
Macron is also flanked by a government chorus. His prime minister, Edouard Philippe, was on the cover of the Sunday edition of Le Parisien newspaper, saying the government “won’t back down.” Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne called rail workers’ fears of a privatization a “fantasy.” Former TV star-turned environment minister Nicolas Hulot said in Journal du Dimanche that the “train is environment-friendly... we love it so we must reform it.”
Some say Macron and his government may be overdoing the sales pitch.
“Macron keeps telling the French people that he’s the fixer, that no one before him did the job, that he will redo everything from top to bottom, that he alone is capable off doing it,” Wolton said. “That’s stressful, and doing it on television won’t help his plans. Or himself.”