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As NATO Meets, Macron's Vision For France Is At A Crossroads


French president Emmanuel Macron is halfway through his five-year term. The youngest French leader since Napoleon Macron swept into office promising to revolutionize France. And while he faces no real political opposition, Macron has been stymied by a massive street protest movement, the yellow vests. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I wanted to check in with 46-year-old entrepreneur Julien Coulon. The first time we met after Macron's election in May 2017 he was ebullient. He says he's still excited about the French president but admits Macron's had some difficulties. Coulon says France is like an old company going through a digital transformation.

JULIEN COULON: So, of course, you have people who are not used to the new technology so you need to train them to move them from one stage to the other. And of course, that's why you have some of the strikes because people - some of the people don't want or are stressed to move to the next stage.

BEARDSLEY: Coulon says this is what led to the yellow vest movement.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting in Non-English language).

BEARDSLEY: The yellow vests rose up from the heartland a year ago sparked by a higher gas tax. The mostly white working-class protesters wore the yellow vests every French motorist keeps in his car. They took to the streets and traffic circles around the country dogging Macron's presidency for nine months. Macron had to slow the pace of his reforms and grant billions in concessions. But he learned a few lessons says Christian Makarian with L'Express magazine.

CHRISTIAN MAKARIAN: The yellow vests crisis made him a favor. They helped him to correct his very high degree of arrogance.

BEARDSLEY: He says Macron also learned the unions cannot be ignored.

MAKARIAN: Macron had underestimated the necessity in this country of social dialogue. He was in favor of a very authoritarian method, very efficient. The president decides, and the rest of the system follows. It doesn't work like this in this country.

BEARDSLEY: Some economists say it's just a matter of time before Macron economic reforms begin to bear fruit. Unemployment is already down to 8% and foreign investment up. Florian Hense is a European economist at Berenberg.

FLORIAN HENSE: Probably France is entering a golden decade, a decade which means it's going to be growing by more than Germany, which has started to kind of backtrack on some reforms, and the U.K., which is struggling very much with that with Brexit.

BEARDSLEY: But Macron is running out of time and still has yet to accomplish one of his biggest goals - an overhaul of the French pension system.

A meeting of several unions is just breaking up. They're calling for an open-ended rolling strike to show their opposition to Macron's latest reform. It's to begin on Thursday and even the student union is joining in. I got to Agathe Regisse (ph) says many young people don't like Macron's vision for France.

AGATHE REGISSE: I really don't identify to his ideas because he talks a lot about competition. The system that he really promotes is a system of competition in terms of labor and also in terms of pension. He's saying to us you do not deserve to have security in your life. You need to struggle and this is really not the kind of system that we want to live in.

BEARDSLEY: With the mainstream parties of the left and right in tatters, Macron's only real political opposition comes from the far right. But his government is wary of the power of street protests and fears what would happen if the yellow vests return and join the unions in months of massive strikes and demonstrations against Macron.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.