FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris

By Brian Love

PARIS (Reuters) – Six hours in jail after an overnight rendition of Peter and the Wolf: no challenge, it seems, is off-limits for French President Emmanuel Macron as he seeks to woo wary voters behind his plans for hard-hitting economic reform.

The 40-year-old leader played narrator of Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic fable when his mail office staff and underprivileged children attended an invitation-only performance at the Elysee Palace on Thursday night.

On Friday, he is to devote most of his day to a six-hour visit of the notoriously overcrowded Fresnes prison on Paris’ outskirts, where wardens protested over inmate violence and dangerous conditions in January.

The job of narrator was, in the words of government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, an experiment in “soft power”, jargon for a gentler form of persuasion and leadership.

Macron, whose wife Brigitte was his drama teacher as a schoolboy, is a fan of theater and classical music, making him a natural fit as the storyteller who accompanies the enchanting sounds of oboes, flutes and drumrolls in Peter and the Wolf.

At a time when his sweeping economic and social reforms are hurting his popularity, Macron’s performance showed a more amenable side to an former investment banker whose detractors call him the “president of the rich”.

Macron launched his ambitious reform agenda in the Autumn with the loosening of rigid labor laws and followed up with plans to overhaul unemployment welfare, professional training and the debt-ridden SNCF state railways.

He has scaled back wealth taxes, pressed for curbs on social housing aid, and cutting civil service numbers is in his sights.

Macron upended a jaded political scene when he swept from early outsider to president. To many voters though, he is a Machiavellian surrounded by a close club of advisers and confident in his own ability to reshape France and Europe.

Intentional or not, some will be tempted to draw a parallel between the young president and Prokofiev’s Peter, who, against advice of elders, ventures beyond his garden walls only to run into a wolf that he ultimately outwits to survive in triumph.

Friday’s foray into Fresnes prison on the southern edge of the capital is a different affair, but exceptional because of the lengthy six hours Macron set aside for the visit.

There too, he has good reason. Prison guards protested for a week in January over a spate of ultra-violent attacks on some of them by inmates. They complained that they were neither trained nor equipped to deal with mounting inmate violence.

Friday’s visit came days before Macron announces plans to improve prison governance after those protests.

(Reporting by Brian Love; Editing by Richard Lough and Toby Chopra)

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