President Emmanuel Macron has promised to attune himself more to grassroots France as he tries to dispel a reputation for arrogance and rekindle his flagging popularity.
The 40-year-old centrist is on a drive to rescue his plummeting poll ratings and revive some of the optimism generated in 2016 when he set up his new party dominated by political newcomers.
In a prime-time TV interview on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, late Wednesday after hosting dozens of world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, at World War I commemorations, an unusually self-critical Macron admitted he has struggled to unite his people.
“I have not succeeded in reconciling the French with their leaders,” he told the TF1 network as France braced for nationwide protests Saturday over spiralling fuel costs that have especially angered rural voters.
“Citizens today want three things: to be given due consideration, to be protected, and to offered solutions,” he said, admitting that “we have probably not given them enough consideration”.
In future, he said, he would “maybe take decisions in a different manner. Not all in Paris”.
Government ministers, their advisers and senior civil servants would instead be required to “spend much more time on the ground”.
It was a stark admission from a leader who is still learning how to wield power, having never held elected office before becoming France’s youngest ever president in May 2017.
The former investment banker is particularly labouring under a reputation for arrogance and has struggled to shake off the label of “president of the rich” coined by critics early on over his tax cuts for business and wealthy investors.
He famously told an unemployed gardener in September he only had to “cross the road” to find work. And last month he told a retiree complaining about tax hikes on pensions that the French “did not realise the luck they have” and they should stop complaining.
Slow progress on economic growth and job creation, and a feeling among rural and small-town voters that his policies favour urban elites, have also fed into growing disillusionment with the pro-EU liberal.
Trump mocked Macron’s low approval ratings — languishing under 30 percent in recent polls — in a flurry of tweets Tuesday seen as exacting revenge for Macron’s criticism of his “America First” nationalism.
“The problem is that Emmanuel suffers from a very low approval Rating in France, 26%, and an unemployment rate of almost 10%. He was just trying to get onto another subject,” Trump tweeted.
With an eye on European Parliament elections in May 2019, in which populists and nationalists are tipped for strong gains, Macron spent last week touring economically blighted regions that have drifted to the far-right National Rally (ex-National Front) in recent elections.
At every turn, he stressed the importance of avoiding the siren call of nationalists who led the world to war twice in the 20th century but was repeatedly challenged about more prosaic, cost-of-living issues, such as rising diesel costs and higher taxes on pensions.
‘Yellow vest’ threat
On Wednesday he said he had “heard the anger” of car owners and those struggling to make ends meet.
In a bid to take the wind out of the sails of the “yellow vest” protest movement, which is calling for roads and highways to be blocked on Saturday, the government has unveiled a series of measures to help poor families pay their energy and transport bills.
But the steps look unlikely to appease the critics of a president, who, unlike his predecessors, does not have a party network with rural roots to fall back on.
He has so far refused to give in to the protesters who have swayed previous presidents from their reform courses.
During a CNN interview at the weekend, he attributed his declining popularity to the fact that he was pushing through “very unpopular reforms”.
“And guess what? I was elected precisely because all my predecessors failed or decided not to deliver these reforms,” he said, not without a hint of pride.
He added that his challenge was “to explain these reforms to my people” and show results in the coming years.