Something unusual happened to President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday: he was praised by a member of the French public.
“Well done for holding firm in Brussels,” said a farmer at France’s annual agricultural show.
The rest of the day was mostly thankless: a 12-hour marathon of nibbling cheese and steak from cocktail sticks while fielding complaints about farm pensions (too small), pesticides (newly restricted) and the future of the common agricultural policy (menaced by post-Brexit cuts).
Macron has been parsimonious with public appearances in France since strikes and demonstrations about his reform of the state pension system began 10 weeks ago. He spent the whole day on Saturday mingling (security permitting) with crowds at French farming’s annual gala event, the Salon International de L’Agriculture at the Porte de Versailles in Paris.
This is not a rendezvous that any French president can refuse. In the 1990s, Jacques Chirac turned it into an encounter group between the president and France’s supposedly rural soul.
An attempt by a handful of gilets jaunes to reach Macron was blocked by police and security guards. Eric Drouet, one of the yellow vest movement’s origin al leaders, was carted off amid scuffling and TV lights. He was later placed under formal arrest for resisting.
Another protester had more luck. She said that she was a “financial controller” and a veteran of all 67 Saturdays of the diminishing yellow vest protests. Yesterday, she became the first gilet jaune ever to speak to Macron.
She complained that the French police were too violent (sometimes true). Macron replied that the gilets jaunes were sometimes violent (true); very few in number these days (also true); and that they often protested against stuff that was untrue (which is sometimes true).
Macron said that he would meet a “structured” group of protesters for an hour in the Elysée Palace if the woman would organise it. Since the gilets jaunes hate leaders and are allergic to structure, this meeting is unlikely to happen.
At other points in the day, the president was upbraided by farmers or groups of farmers for, inter alia, imposing a ban on the use of pesticides near houses and failing to apply a promised boost in farm pensions to farmers who are already retired.
Macron had hoped to come to the show as the man who fought off attempts to cut EU farm spending at the Brussels summit on Thursday and Friday. Unfortunately for him, the summit broke up without agreement.
“Well done for holding firm in Brussels,” the farmer said. Macron looked at him in astonishment.