French president went on live primetime TV to deny disdain for working class and to explain macronism to suspicious voters
The French president Emmanuel Macron has angrily denied he was cut off from real life or held working-class people in disdain in his first live primetime interview after five months in power.
Macron organised the rare TV appearance on Sunday night in part to counter the damaging image among his critics that he was a “president for the rich” who cares more about the wealthy than the struggling. On air, he rejected the label, saying the very term pitted French people against one another and sparked “sad emotions” in the country.
In recent weeks, some of Macron’s policies, such as watering down France’s deeply symbolic wealth tax by applying it only to property, had led to him being labelled a “president of the rich” by political opponents — a negative tag that had previously damaged the rightwing Nicolas Sarkozy. But Macron stood by his easing of the wealth tax, saying he wanted wealthy French people who had fled the tax system to return and invest in business. He said: “I don’t believe in the French jealousy that seeks to tax success. That is huge hypocrisy. What was the result of the wealth tax? We lost a lot of talent.”
Sitting in a new corner-office in the Élysée palace, decorated with street art and modern paintings, Macron insisted: “I’m not here to manage or reform, I’m here to transform [France].”
The pro-business centrist who beat the far-right Marine Le Pen to win the presidency in May had until now shied away from traditional French presidential TV appearances. Instead, he has preferred giving lofty, lengthy speeches – typically on the future of the European Union – punctuated by occasional flippant comments during public walkabouts.
But after Macron’s approval polls ratings fell this summer and then stabilised in recent weeks, the young president sought to address the voters who were struggling to understand the real meaning and implications of his political project and the nature of “macronism”, which claims to be both left and right at the same time.
The 39-year-old president was under pressure to set out what his proposed “radical transformation of France” would mean for regular households in the next five years. He insisted that his loosening of labour laws in favour of businesses – which he has called the most ambitious French reform of the postwar era – did not equate to a “hyper free-market” model that would destroy rights, saying instead that it would help all workers. His next phase is to overhaul unemployment benefits and training schemes. He promised that the results would be felt in the French economy and society within one to two years.
Macron rejected criticisms over his recent choice of words after he vowed to face down the “slackers” who opposed his labour law reform, or dismissed protesting workers as kicking up “chaos”. He said: “I have always opted to tell things as they are and to get close to the truth, so I name things.” He said he wanted to speak freely, warning “our elites are used to a sterilised public discourse”.
Macron’s current challenge is not political. In political terms, he is comfortable: his young party, La République en Marche, dominates parliament, opposition is fragmented and Macron has managed to swiftly deliver key manifesto promises, namely pushing through labour law changes.
Instead, Macron’s issue is hisimage. Like all French presidents before him, he is under scrutiny over his own personal style. The privately educated former investment banker has recently been attacked over comments that were seen, particularly on the left, as being cut off from real life. When a row erupted over his cuts to housing benefits, Macron suggested that if asked nicely, landlords might lower their rents. Critics slammed him for pie-in-the-sky notions. When another row erupted this month over Macron allegedly disparaging striking workers, he was criticised for suggesting offhand that workers in danger of losing their jobs could simply travel 140km to work somewhere else.
While Macron’s poll ratings are better on the right, he wants to win back leftwing voters who supporteded him in the presidential race but are now turning away.
Macron said in the TV interview that he had asked for the removal of the French Légion of honneur award from Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood film producer who is the focus of allegations of rape and sexual assault. Macron also said he would increase French policing powers to deal with sexual harassment in the street and the harassment of women on public transport.
Macron is trying to shed the label he set out for himself before the election – that he could be like Jupiter, the Roman god of gods, a lofty figure speaking little in public. This notion of distance from the fray was modelled on previous presidents Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand, but he is now seeking to prove he is not deliberately cutting himself off.
“When I am with French people, I am not aloof because I belong to them,” he told the German magazine Der Spiegel this weekend, adding that he was not “arrogant” but “determined”.
Insisting that he didn’t see himself as a kind of republican king, Macron told the magazine: “France is a country of regicidal monarchists. It is a paradox: The French want to elect a king, but they would like to be able to overthrow him whenever they want.”
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