MULHOUSE, France (AP) – Facing a tougher-than-expected battle for re-election, French President Emmanuel Macron has finally reached the campaign track – and it’s not always accommodating.
But he does not shy away from angry voters, instead engaging in lively, at times confrontational debates. Since he and right-wing nationalist rival Marine Le Pen on Sunday qualified for France’s presidential election on April 24Macron has seemed eager to go into the field to explain his policies and try to convince people to give him another term.
On Tuesday, he was asked tough questions during a visit to the eastern town of Mulhouse.
“Why did not you help the poorest?”
“Why do hospitals suffer from a shortage of beds and a shortage of healthcare staff?”
“How can you propose pushing the retirement age back from 62 to 65 when so many people are unemployed?”
The 44-year-old leader seemed determined to explain his policies at length – but sometimes became impatient when people kept contradicting him.
Before Sunday’s first round of presidential elections, which had 12 candidates, Macron skipped most campaign activities and focused his time in the Elysee presidential palace on diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s war in Ukraine. Domestic critics rejected the perceived lack of debate in France’s presidential campaign.
Now the role of candidate has taken over. Macron is considered the favorite of the polls, but Le Pen seems to have narrowed the distance significantly from 2017, when he disappeared her in the same presidential election.
On Monday, Macron took to an economically depressed region in northern France, considered Le Pen’s stronghold. The next day, he visited the eastern cities of Mulhouse and Strasbourg, where the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came in on the third Sunday, got a majority of the votes in the first round.
When he arrived at Mulhouse, Macron literally ran towards the small crowd waiting for him. He met some supporters, but also angry, discouraged workers from a nearby public hospital, who came to challenge him.
“We are exhausted,” some nurses told him. “Improve our working conditions!”
A 61-year-old health worker said he worked for 30 years and earns only 1,885 euros ($ 2,051) a month.
“I do not think of myself. I think of my children, my grandchildren,” he said, explaining his voice.
Macron mentioned changes his government had made amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including a small pay rise for hospital workers.
“Has your earnings increased?” he asked.
“We do not feel the effect of it,” replied the man.
Another health worker asked him about hospitals “losing beds” as the pandemic is still ongoing.
“I know this is the challenge we face,” Macron acknowledged, explaining that the problem is a lack of trained hospital staff, a situation that is exacerbated in a region where many French people are looking for work in neighboring Germany and Switzerland, where wages are higher.
“Two years ago, I made commitments … and wages were rising. And 183 euros ($ 199) a month, you can not say it is nothing,” Macron insisted.
Another major obstacle repeatedly came Macron’s path: his planned retirement changes. Macron wants to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 65, which he claims is necessary so that France can continue to fund pensions. Le Pen says she would maintain the retirement age at 62. The issue sparked major street protests in late 2019, and Macron then had to postpone its plans in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
“We need to work harder,” Macron said. “It is not true that we can continue to fund our social model if we do not push back (retirement age).”
He kept reiterating that the pension changes would be implemented very gradually through 2031 and opened the door to soften the reform as he seeks to attract voters who elected other candidates in the first round.
At a meeting in the square next to the 12th-century cathedral in Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament, buh briefly disrupted Macron’s speech about Europe, but failed to destabilize him. Instead, he responded spontaneously to criticism, urging his supporters and opponents to respect each other.
Le Pen supporters credit her months-long campaign in the French provinces for her strong first round. But when Macron finally joined the fight, he tried to distinguish between their campaigns and criticized the candidates, “who never go to meet opponents.”
“I don’t just want to meet people who like me,” he said.
Associated Press journalists Masha Macpherson and John Leicester in Paris contributed to this report.
Follow all AP stories about the French presidential election in 2022 at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022.