As election looms, can Macron show he has governed for all for France?


Show caption Young people from Maurepas, a working-class district in the north of Rennes, play basketball. Photograph: François Lepage/The Guardian France As election looms, can Macron show he has governed for all for France? Brittany symbolises how difficult life has been for many French people in past two years – but there are signs of change Angelique Chrisafis in Rennes and Côtes-d’Armor @achrisafis Mon 28 Feb 2022 05.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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On the edge of one of Brittany’s poorest housing estates, a six-year-old girl sits in class and works on her handwriting. Her teacher, Lucile, encourages her as 11 other children sit around tables, arranged into cosy nooks. “Every day I listen to each child read to me, I never managed that when I had 25 in a class,” said Lucile. “I get to know each child individually and it’s so calm.”

It is in classrooms like this, in France’s most deprived neighbourhoods, that the centrist president, Emmanuel Macron, wants his record in office to be considered. When he came to power five years ago – a former banker who had served as economy minister under the left – he promised a “pragmatic” cherrypicking of ideas from both left and right that would liberalise the economy and end the persistent inequality that he said “imprisoned” people by their social origins.

Now, as he faces an April re-election battle dominated by concerns over the cost of living, social protections and how to make ends meet; his policy of slashing school class sizes to help disadvantaged children has become key to Macron showing he has not only governed for the elite.

Macron at the International Agriculture Fair in Paris last month. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AP

The 1960s school building surrounded by tower-block housing estates in the city of Rennes, symbolises the poverty trap that has become one of France’s most enduring problems. A child born and schooled in a deprived neighbourhood in France has less chance of escaping their socio-economic background than in most other developed nations, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

When Macron took office in 2017, he promised the biggest overhaul of France’s social model and welfare system in modern history, and swiftly loosened the country’s strict labour laws by decree. Such pro-business policies, in tandem with his transformation of the wealth tax into a property tax, saw him labelled as the “president of the rich”. Then came two massive crises – first the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) anti-government revolt, followed by the pandemic, which has killed more than 130,000 people in France. Macron quickly turned to state interventionism and vast public spending while boasting of “nationalising wages” to keep the country afloat.

France’s economy has started bouncing back from Covid faster than expected. Unemployment is down, and the US economist Paul Krugman has called France the “star performer” of the major advanced economies in the pandemic era. But amid inflation, rising fuel prices, record distrust of the political class, society divisions and growing identity politics on the far right, Macron remains under pressure to prove that his five years in office did, as he claims, “protect” people from all backgrounds.

Aerial view of part of the Maurepas district of Rennes. Photograph: François Lepage/The Guardian

Les Gantelles primary school in Rennes is one of the thousands of schools in deprived “priority education zones” where Macron cut class sizes in half for five-, six-, and seven-year-olds learning to read and count – guaranteeing no more than 12 children per teacher as a way to level the education gap in one of the most unequal school systems in the developed world. Macron’s entourage presents it as his defining social measure – even recognised by some opponents such as the rightwing presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse.

In the corridors of Les Gantelles, independent of politics, staff also approved of the change. “From a human perspective, teaching is more personalised, the atmosphere is more conducive to learning and there’s an increased level of wellbeing among children in class,” said Dominique Dubray, the school’s headteacher. She would like small classes of 15 children throughout the whole school and across the country. “That’s my dream.”

But Alain Landeau, a school inspector in Rennes, cautioned that the results could only be fully measured in the much longer term. “It undeniably changed the atmosphere – it’s very relaxed in these classes, you feel that teachers and pupils feel good. In terms of classroom mood, it has been spectacular,” said Landeau.

School students in the courtyard of Plouasne middle school in Brittany, France. Photograph: François Lepage/The Guardian

The Maurepas housing estates near the school are among the most disadvantaged in Brittany, a region that is otherwise booming – buoyed by agriculture, food processing, electronics, car assembly and tourism – which will prove key to Macron’s re-election campaign. Its tradition of pro-European, centre-left politics gave Macron some of his highest scores in the last presidential race in 2017, alongside the Paris region. Key Brittany figures, including the foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, will play a role in Macron’s re-election campaign.

But Brittany, with its well-developed network of charities and grassroots associations that stepped in to help those suffering during the pandemic, also symbolises just how difficult life has become for many French people in the past two years.

“The Covid crisis was very revealing,” said Pheng Ly, who works for the association La Cohue, set up to provide a meeting place, activities and job support for the Gros Chêne estate in Maurepas, which is undergoing renovation. “The pandemic showed up existing inequalities in deprived neighbourhoods like this where many people live below the poverty line, and where since the 1960s, poverty and misery has been concentrated in one small perimeter.”

Since the pandemic began, La Cohue has facilitated food parcel handouts. Marie, a retired high school cleaner, 68, who did not want to give her real name, had queued to take home yoghurts, eggs and potato salad. “My pension is €600, and after paying €400 in rent, then bills like gas and water, I can’t afford food,” she said. “I queue for handouts and add a bit of pasta to it at home. I’m angry and exhausted.”

The volunteers of La Cohue distribute food parcels to people in the Maurepas district. Photograph: François Lepage/The Guardian

To her, Macron does not understand people’s daily lives and struggles. She had believed the government’s promise to introduce a minimum pension of €1,000 a month for those who had worked all their lives. But Macron’s proposed pensions overhaul led to protests that lasted longer than any strike since the wildcat workers’ stoppages of 1968, and the change was shelved during the pandemic.

Marie feels immigration has worsened problems in France, and was tempted by the far right. Divisions in society remain. Macron’s response to terrorism and the 2020 beheading of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty was to introduce tough legislation against religious separatism, which has caused concern to some rights groups. Reports of anti-Muslim acts increased by 32% in 2021.

Macron was elected over the far-right Marine Le Pen in 2017, saying in his victory speech he would ensure people had “no more reason to vote for extremes”. But five years on, the far-right competition has morphed and grown; Macron is now facing two such candidates, Le Pen and a newcomer, TV pundit Eric Zemmour, who has been convicted for inciting racial hatred.

From his office in the National Assembly, Florian Bachelier, the MP for Rennes and one of the Breton figures in Macron’s close circle, said the pandemic had left French people traumatised in many ways and the whole country was “conscious of our individual and collective vulnerabilities”. A former lawyer, he listed policy measures that he argued had improved French people’s daily lives, including developing apprenticeships for young people, lowering income tax, scrapping the housing tax for many French people and extending paternity leave to 28 days. “What stands out is that the president has protected the French – even more so during the turbulent times of the pandemic,” he said.

But Bachelier, who as France’s “first quaestor” manages the finances and administration of the National Assembly, is also well placed to measure the growing mood of distrust towards elected officials. He has made a series of legal complaints over threats against him amid a rise in death threats against French lawmakers from all parties. Bachelier said rebuilding trust with the electorate required “showing we keep our promises and that we’re working in the general interest”.

The gilets jaunes revolt, which began in autumn 2018 and ran into 2019, was a turning point in Macron’s presidency. What started as an anti-fuel tax movement became a long-running anti-government protest sparking the worst street unrest in Paris in decades.

“Where we succeeded was showing politicians there was a France that was suffering,” said Tristan Lozach, from his home near Saint-Brieuc. Lozach was 26 when he became a key organiser for northern Brittany’s gilets jaunes, protesting on roundabouts and outside shopping centres. He had grown up in children’s homes and the care system, and worked as a funeral operative, dressing and preparing the deceased for their relatives – a job he found purpose and pride in.

But with his salary, he could not make ends meet or pay petrol bills. “There were a lot of people in France who were afraid to say they were suffering or living in misery, the protests allowed them to speak out,” he said. “And I think it changed Emmanuel Macron. He doesn’t speak to the public the same way as he did three years ago, when he would make comments to people he met in the street that came across as disdain.”

Tristan Lozach, a spokesperson for the gilets jaunes of Saint-Brieuc. Photograph: François Lepage/The Guardian

But with inflation and rising fuel prices, Lozach said he was struggling even more today than during the protests in 2018. He received the government’s recent one-off “premium” of €100 to protect low-income workers from rising energy prices. “But you can’t live on an occasional anti-inflation cheque – you need long-term solutions”. He and a handful of local gilets jaunes have been back on roundabouts or hanging banners over motorway bridges “to show we’re still here”.

In nearby Plédran, Julien Rouxel, 22, is preparing to take over the small dairy farm that has been in his family for five generations. He is optimistic for the future, but had been out supporting the pig and dairy farmers on recent tractor protests against supermarkets accused of not giving fair prices for produce. “I just want to farm and be able to pay my costs,” he said. “Emmanuel Macron – poor guy – I’m not criticising him because he’s had a lot on his plate and he did his best. But I suppose the question is: did he listen enough to French people? Perhaps not.”

Julien Rouxel, a dairy farmer in his barn with his cows. Photograph: François Lepage/The Guardian

In the thriving centre of Rennes, Goulwen Lorcy could be seen as an example of Macron’s key soundbite of making France a “startup nation”. Lorcy’s small Brittany startup launched before the pandemic to create digital systems to re-allocate unused medicines between hospitals. But when the pandemic hit, he and his team of young developers were called in by the state to rapidly create a similar system linking hospitals in France. “It brought us the recognition that start-ups can be more reactive than big companies in inventing new solutions very quickly,” Lorcy said. He noted that during the pandemic, many “solutions were regional”, not just filtering down from Paris.

Goulwen Lorcy, co-founder of MaPui Labs, at his office in Rennes. Photograph: François Lepage/The Guardian

Romain Pasquier, a political scientist at Sciences Po Rennes, said Macron’s top-down style of governance had been “extremely centralised”. He said regions with a strong identity and local language, such as Brittany, had been angered at the education ministry’s reticence last summer over the immersive teaching of regional languages in schools.

Meanwhile, Macron’s party is preparing campaign material to remind voters of the various measures it has put in place; from the increase in the justice budget to the €300 “culture pass” for 15- to 18-year-olds to spend on the arts.

Youth social worker Emmanuel Curet. Photograph: François Lepage/The Guardian

On another Rennes housing estate, Emmanuel Curet is a youth social worker in a key sports association. “If you do sport, there’s less chance of being in the shit,” he said. He was, as a rule, sceptical of political parties, he said. But asked if anything had changed in the five years under Macron, Curet mentions youth training and apprenticeship programmes. Several young people had been able to train and were hired by his association. His 18-year-old son was an apprentice printer. “It’s an efficient tool in getting young people on the road to a career and salary,” said Curet. “That has changed things.”