SOUILLAC, France — At 9:23 p.m., after nearly six hours of talk, President Emmanuel Macron took up the subject of nursing homes. At 9:48 p.m., into the seventh hour, he was speaking about France’s “food independence.” Past 10 o’clock, with some of his listeners visibly wilting on plastic chairs, it was on to the French minimum wage.
The president in his crisp white shirt and tie — shedding the suit jacket in the fifth hour was his only concession — showed no such sign of weakness. “We’re going to favor organic farming,” he told his audience of local mayors as the night wore on. A half-joke from a small-town mayor about breaking Fidel Castro’s record for marathon speechifying had long since been forgotten.
So it was that the youthful French president revealed his strategy for overcoming the crisis of the Yellow Vest uprising: talk, or at least a series of town hall-style meetings around the country. For now, at least, it may be working to blunt the momentum of his opponents, even as it tests their patience.
Early indications — opinion polls slightly on the rise, violence on the decline, his party overtaking the far right in surveys for the European elections in May — suggest Mr. Macron, 41, may finally be turning a corner after weeks of stunned retreat.
The president’s appearance last week in Souillac in southwestern France, population 3,300, was part of his kickoff to a two-month series of local talks that his office has dubbed the “Great National Debate.” Other citizen debates, without him, have already started all around the country.
Assembled before Mr. Macron were more than 600 mayors, the grass-roots representatives of the constituents he stands accused of disdaining, the ones Mr. Macron once labeled “those who are nothing.’’
That distance from average citizens, and a lack of understanding and empathy about their inability to make ends meet, has been seen as provoking the still-smoldering Yellow Vest uprising.
Some close to Mr. Macron say it has taken its toll on the French president. The usually impeccably turned-out Mr. Macron is thinner, and bags have been spotted under his eyes.
“He was pretty blown over by the violence of it, directed at him,” said Sacha Houlié, a young member of Parliament in Mr. Macron’s circle. “And yes, he was very shocked by the graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe, and the violence against the police.’’
Mr. Macron is now trying to bridge the gap with the gatherings, organized by these same mayors, so that citizens can blow off steam about high taxes, low wages and disappearing services.
A “detonator of collective intelligence,” Mr. Macron called the process at the gathering last week. And that release, the president is wagering, will take the wind out of the Yellow Vest sails.
The strategy no doubt entails risks, not least that the president’s exhaustive, deliberative style runs up against the angry demands for urgent action from citizens impatient with promises that his disruptive economic changes will soon yield fruit.
But by thrusting himself squarely into the debate, as Mr. Macron did in Souillac, and showing his command of all the subjects thrown at him, the president has clawed back lost ground in the population at large.
“He’s doing what he can, and it seems to be bringing some results,” said France’s leading pollster, Jerome Fourquet of IFOP, in an interview Wednesday. “His popularity is going up, just like the voting intentions for his party.”
“So the signs indicate that we’ve gotten over the worst of the crisis,” he added. “We seem to be heading toward a gradual exit.”
Still, it is too soon to say whether Mr. Macron is succeeding in winning over his opponents, or merely stalling them with enough talk to anesthetize the violent street protests that threatened his presidency.
The vote that counts may be among the Yellow Vests, and for now it is not clear that they are buying what Mr. Macron has to sell. “It’s just a way of putting the whole thing to sleep,” a movement founder, Priscilla Ludosky, told French reporters.
In the town center of Souillac, all narrow medieval streets, dozens of abandoned and empty storefronts and ‘‘For Sale’’ signs in the ancient stone buildings attest to the distress of the ‘‘Left Behind France’’ that has fueled the Yellow Vest revolt. All morning, noisy Yellow Vest protesters on the main street of Souillac had demanded Mr. Macron’s resignation.
Inside the convention center the atmosphere, initially at least, was not much warmer. “You’ve got to stop throwing the weakest among us, the most precarious, the poorest, to the dogs!” Christian Venries, the mayor of Saint-Cirgues, population 355, admonished the president in front of hundreds of his colleagues.
By the end, others were assuaged, at least, by what nearly all agreed was an impressive performance. “We came in morose, and we left feeling rosy,” said Francis Chastrusse, mayor of Nadaillac-de-Rouge, population 162, as he walked out last Friday night.
If the gatherings have so far resolved nothing else, it is that Mr. Macron’s most potent weapon may be his mouth, and a nearly encyclopedic command of even the most arcane of subjects.
For a question about accelerated medical aid, Mr. Macron knew the cost of speeding up the delivery of hearing aids. He rattled off numbers on state public housing expenditures, and he knew how long it takes to process migrant asylum requests, how many different pension systems exist in France, and the name of a bear who died in the mountains in 2004.
“One-third of our tap water is wasted,” Mr. Macron was saying in the dilapidated convention center in Souillac as gray daylight outside turned to darkness. “Property assessments have got to be revised,” he went on. “Paychecks will be simplified,” the president insisted.
“We’re building a new form of democracy,” he said. “Participative democracy. Information circulates much more quickly. We’ve got to do a sort of hygiene of information.”
Hour after hour, the president drowned his listeners in proposals, recommendations, observations, admonitions and prescriptions. He bludgeoned them into submission with a total mastery of dozens of different subjects, all explicated without a single note in hand.
And he left his dazed audience in the dust, begging for surrender and commenting sheepishly on his obvious brilliance.
“This is a man who is largely superior,” said Philippe Baron, mayor of the tiny town of Loubersan, south of Bordeaux, as he emerged bleary-eyed from the convention center here. “Yes, it’s true, most of us were convinced.”
What is missing, many agree, is less mouth and more ear on the part of the president. And the French are eager to give him an earful.
Each city hall in France, all 35,000-plus including the one in Souillac, now contains a dog-eared “Grievance Book” modeled on those that helped kick off the French Revolution in 1789. The citizens here have scribbled furious demands for lower taxes and higher wages.
In the rolling and sonorous accents of southern France, the region’s mayors complained of problems with bears, disappearing local bread bakers, lack of transport, too many migrants and not enough state support for tourism.
The questions rolled in from all the departments — the administrative districts — of southern France, from the high Pyrenees to the wild Aveyron, and he had answers for all of them.
“Look, he knows how to do this sort of thing,” said Mr. Fourquet, the pollster. “He’s got deep knowledge of the subjects, and he has a faculty for listening. He can be very impressive.”
Mr. Fourquet noted that Mr. Macron, with a recent turn toward harsher public assessments of Yellow Vest violence, is making inroads with a right-leaning electorate destabilized by the upheaval.
Yet for all the hours of listening to the small-town complaints, Mr. Macron also made clear that he was not backing down from his core pro-business, pro-capital ideology, likely presaging more conflict ahead.
He once again brushed aside calls to reinstate the wealth tax, whose elimination early in his administration has been a bugbear of the Yellow Vest movement.
“Our country has suffered for years from lack of investment in industry,” Mr. Macron said at one point. “But investment today means jobs of tomorrow. And it’s beginning to take off.”
Unemployment is indeed down slightly, though still high at over 9 percent. “How can we jump-start production in our country? You’ve got to incite people to invest in the economy,” he told the silent mayors.
Some are waiting to be convinced that the president — nicknamed Jupiter, god of the gods in Roman mythology, for what has been seen as his seeming arrogance — is capable of bending, too.
“Sure, it went on a long time,” said Jean-Marc Vayssouze-Faure, the mayor of Cahors, the regional capital. “But I need proof. I want him to show that he is sensitive to the requirements of social justice. And he needs to show that he is shedding this totally Jupiter-like way of exercising power.”
Orignially published in NYT.