French President Emmanuel Macron has revealed long-awaited plans to alleviate nearly half a year of street protests that have sucked the oxygen out of his presidency and cast his political future into doubt.
Speaking at the Élysée presidential palace on Thursday after a monthslong national listening tour aimed at addressing the demands of the “Yellow Vest” movement, Macron laid out a series of reforms to tackle social inequity in the country.
The policy measures loosely outlined by Macron included “significantly” reducing income taxes for workers in France, cutting the size of the country’s infamously bloated civil service, a greater investment in early childhood education, reforming the pensions scheme and more decentralization of government.
“I want to assign a simple purpose to this new era of our Republic: give hope back to everyone, by asking everyone to give the best of himself. This is how we will be able to rebuild together, very profoundly, what I call the art of being French,” Macron said in his first full press conference with French media to date.
He also vowed to press on with “essential transformations” already in progress and pledged to restore “public order” after months of sometimes violent unrest.
It seems unlikely that Macron’s response to the so-called “great debate” will be enough to assuage the Yellow Vests, who have called on the government to scrap a green tax on diesel, raise the minimum wage, improve public services and roll back tax cuts for the wealthy. Some demonstrators have even demanded that parliament be dissolved and Macron resign.
In his speech, Macron refused to bend to protesters’ pleas to reinstate France’s notorious wealth tax, which he scrapped off the back of a campaign pledge, but added that it would be reviewed in 2020.
The beleaguered president admitted he had underestimated the expectations France was putting on him when he took office, saying in his speech on Thursday that the anger he felt during town hall meetings across the country was justified.
The stakes are high for the President, whose popularity has plummeted in polls to around 30%, from 60% during his inauguration two years ago.
The pro-business, centrist platform he ran on against French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in 2017 has been picked apart by his critics.
Le Pen’s rebranded Rassemblement National, or National Rally, party has attempted to align with the Yellow Vests – named for the high-visibility jackets they wear – with both groups pushing for proportional representation in parliament, direct democracy and less European integration.
Not only do these demands run counter to Macron’s mission to modernize France, but they stymie his ambitious political plans to revolutionize Europe and step into German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s shoes to lead the bloc.
Macron had been due to deliver a televised address last Monday in response to the Yellow Vest uprising, which has marred Paris’ famed boulevards, causing millions of dollars in damage and plunged the nation into a malaise.
But just hours beforehand, a devastating fire broke out at Notre Dame Cathedral and Macron instead found himself addressing a nation in mourning.
A day later, Macron vowed to rebuild the 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece, adding that it was “not a time for politics.”
Still, text of Macron’s planned remarks was leaked to the French press, rendering his speech Thursday somewhat anticlimactic.
French media reported last week that Macron had planned to shutter his alma mater, Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, which has educated nearly half of France’s presidents and prime ministers. The decision to scrap the school, which has become synonymous with French elitism, was confirmed by Macron on Thursday.
But the preview of that move, among others, did nothing to quell Yellow Vest protests last weekend.
On Saturday, 9,000 demonstrators were back out on the streets of Paris protesting for the 23rd consecutive weekend. Though their numbers have dwindled, their demands have become more radical and their mood more revolutionary.
None that CNN spoke with were interested in the future of the ENA – far removed from an array of economic concerns of ordinary people.
Instead, many were preoccupied with the millions of dollars pledged to the reconstruction of Notre Dame in recent days. The huge outpouring of cash has triggered a backlash among members of the Yellow Vest movement, who note that billionaires and companies donating funds stand to receive significant tax breaks.
Ingrid Levavasseur, one of the movement’s leaders, condemned the donations for Notre Dame, saying on the talk show “Balance Ton Post”: “When I’ve seen those millions of euros and that billion accumulate, my stomach ached. Again I told myself: something’s wrong, there something’s wrong because in our society, we struggle every day.”
“My voice trembles because it’s the reality, it hurts, it hurts to see all those who struggle. And we’ve been out in the streets for five months.”
CNN’s Antoine Crouin and Melissa Bell contributed to this report from Paris. Arnaud Siad reported from London.