Emmanuel Macron’s bid to recast himself as France’s president of the people gets ‘the finger’
Emmanuel Macron’s bid to recast himself as a man of the people has hit an instant snag after a photo emerged of the French president embracing a member of the public who gives the camera the finger.
Far-Right leader Marine Le Pen called the photo “unforgivable” while members of the mainstream Right suggested the president – whose approval ratings are at an all-time low amid accusations he is arrogant and out of touch – had fallen too far, too fast from his lofty presidential pedestal.
Mr Macron said the picture, taken during a meeting with locals in a poor neighbourhood of the part-French Caribbean island of Saint-Martin, was criticised out of context and, on the contrary, proved that he “loved each and every child of the Republic, whatever mischief they make”.
The photo was taken on Saturday as Mr Macron toured a neighbourhood of the island and witnessed repair work a year after hurricane Irma wreaked devastation.
The president visited a home and chatted to two young men. The first told him that he had recently been released from prison after a stint for armed robbery. Mr Macron told him to “stop troublemaking”, adding: “Your mother deserves better.”
On ne trouve même plus de mots pour exprimer notre indignation.
La France ne mérite certainement pas cela. C’est impardonnable ! MLP pic.twitter.com/Lvf2k8cO8S
— Marine Le Pen (@MLP_officiel) 30 September 2018
He then posed with the second young man, bare-chested with baggy trousers, who later posted the picture on social media where it was picked up back in mainland France.
“Words fail to express our indignation. France deserves better that this. It’s unforgivable,” tweeted Ms Le Pen, head of the National Rally, RN, previously the Front National. “What an affront to France by the man supposed to preside over our fate with dignity and nobility! A finger and a smile,” added fellow RN figure Jean Messiha.
Valérie Boyer, an MP from the mainstream Right-wing Republicans: “You must behave properly. You’re not called Manu (diminutive of Emmanuel), you’re called Mr President.”
Quizzed on the photo before leaving the French Caribbean, Mr Macron sought to play it down.
“The reason why I fought to be elected against Marine Le Pen and why I’m here today is because I love each and every child of the Republic,” he said to applause.
“He didn’t choose the place he was born and he didn’t have the opportunity not to (make trouble)”.
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Mr Macron said that after the photo was taken, the two young men had help carry a handicapped girl who wanted to meet him. “They were able to do that because I looked at them with trust, because I respected them. That’s the Republic.”
The snap sparked furious exchanges on social media.
Many accused Ms Le Pen of double standards. One posted a picture of her posing with a former SS officer, saying: “That’s unforgivable”. Another showed her smiling next to two neo-Nazis.
C'est vrai, c'est mieux de poser avec des néo-nazis….. pic.twitter.com/B0vjOGeGOU
— cha cha ❤️🇫🇷🏆🌟🌟 (@Cha_cha_mimi) 30 September 2018
The row came a day after Mr Macron sought to strike a new, more humble tone after a string of political setbacks and record low approval ratings.
“I’m not perfect. No one is perfect,” he told Le Journal du Dimanche. “So it’s normal that there have been things that were not done well. They have to be corrected.”
Widely accused of being haughty, including by senior figures in his own centrist camp, Mr Macron said he wanted to reconnect with the public. “I am happy to be with people. I like contact, being among them,” he said. “I want to get back into a field that can be difficult . . . It can mean accepting people’s anger, impatience and distress.”
After a dazzling start, Mr Macron’s presidency has hit severe turbulence at the start of its second year.
After a summer scandal involving his security aide, his star environment minister resigned due to lack of progress and Gérard Collomb, the powerful interior minister, slammed his “hubris and lack of humility”.
The president’s attempts at rolling up his shirtsleeves to meet the public has landed him in trouble on several occasions, most recently two weeks ago when he told an unemployed gardener that all he had to do was “cross the street” to find work in a café or restaurant.
With an approval rating of around 30 per cent, Mr Macron is now less liked than his deeply unpopular predecessor, François Hollande.
On Sunday, he said he was aware that the French were starting to get impatient due to the lack of tangible effects of his reforms on their daily lives, but insisted that unlike his predecessors, he would press ahead with more changes.
“In no way will I change policy,” Mr Macron said. “I undertook transformations that our country avoided for decades.”