President Emmanuel Macron sought to put his 2017 election reform agenda back on track Thursday after months of sometimes violent “yellow vest” encounters with police — paralleled by town hall debates he personally attended — saying “essential” transformations should not be stopped.
“Did we take the wrong turn? I believe quite the opposite,” said the 41-year-old former investment banker, whose popularity rating has fallen from above 60% when he was elected to around 30% now.
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“Today, above all, public order must return. It’s essential that we come together,” Macron urged, saying the “actions of some people” had eclipsed just demands broadly supported when the protest movement began.
Not for the first time, he apologized for his sometimes snide comments, which earned him a reputation for arrogance and avoidance of media encounters.
Regret over snide remarks
“I regret them deeply… I think they did not show me as I am,” Macron said as he took questions from journalists, adding that he hoped “good solutions” would emerge from France’s months of debate.
“We are above all children of the Enlightenment,” he said, referring to the progressive Age of Reason thinking adopted in Europe from the 18th century.
His lengthy statement had been postponed since April 15 when Macron switched to dealing with Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral fire.
“Significant’ tax cuts pledged
Acknowledging that protests had vented “anger and impatience” over social inequality, Macron defended his tenure’s initial decision to scrap a wealth tax, saying that measure’s thrust had been to stimulate economic output, not placate the rich.
“Significant” tax cuts would benefit the middle class, financed by closing loopholes to some firms, he pledged, while promising probes by the national Court of Audit into the extent of tax evasion.
“The real inequalities are inequalities of origin, of destiny, or birth,” said the former economy minister, stressing the need for heavy investment in early childhood care.
Reiterating his call that the French needed to work longer, Macron said: “France works much less than its neighbors. We need to have a real debate on this.”
Delayed plans for pension reform, with the lowest payouts indexed to inflation, would be presented to cabinet in the coming months, he said.
Elite ENA to be replaced
“Something else” had to replace the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), a university based in Strasbourg that since 1945 has educated many of France’s elite officials, Macron said.
“This is not a meritocratic system any more… We don’t need job-for-life protection,” he said of his alma mater.
Alluding to yellow vest protests in infrastructurally weak rural areas, Macron said no more schools or hospitals would be closed without local mayoral backing.
It would be part of a new push to decentralize government, Macron said. “We must maintain public services… guarantee access for all to health services,” he added.
His tax cuts pledge comes as France struggles to keep its budget deficit in check and ward off its reputation as being the world’s most highly taxed country.
Figures from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show France’s ‘tax-take’ equating to 54 percent of gross domestic product.
ipj/sms (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)