PARIS (Reuters) - France’s Emmanuel Macron declared himself humbled by his first year as president on Monday, but said he was determined to pursue his ambitious reform agenda in spite of polls showing him losing support among working-class voters.
Addressing a joint gathering of the French national assembly and Senate at the Palace of Versailles, Macron sought to confront critics who have dubbed him “president of the rich”, while not stepping back from his pledge to transform France.
“I know I can’t do everything, I know I can’t succeed in everything,” the 40-year-old former investment banker told lawmakers, calling himself “humble but determined”.
In many respects the 90-minute address was an acknowledgement that he had isolated some sectors of his electorate, especially with a raft of pro-business reforms, while re-emphasizing that root-and-branch reform was needed to reinvigorate the economy and put France on a stronger footing.
While polls show his popularity falling, Macron pointed to an increase in foreign investment since his election, with tech companies opening new research hubs, banks moving employees to Paris and French universities luring foreign brains - part of the so-called “Macron effect”.
Striking an at times modest tone, Macron looked to counter accusations that he is arrogant and out of touch.
“This is an office that, realistically, requires humility,” he told the audience, seated in an ornate meeting hall in the gilded palace of France’s former monarchy.
“But humility in oneself, not humility for France.”
A raft of recent opinion polls have shown his popularity languishing at below 40 percent, which pollsters attribute to both irritation with his perceived aloofness and sometimes cutting language, and impatience with policies that have yet to improve the lives of many, particularly the less well-off.
He defended his decision to slash a wealth tax, the move that first prompted opponents to brand him “president of the rich”, a label he has struggled to shake off since.
“A policy for businesses is not a policy for the rich,” he said, in his clearest statement addressing the unwelcome tag. “It’s impossible to pretend you can redistribute wealth if you don’t create it in the first place.”
France might have managed to avoid the increase in income inequality that many Western countries have experienced in recent decades, he said, but it had failed to create a society which valued merit and social mobility.
“What has emerged in France is an inequality of destiny,” he said, reemphasizing the need for an overhaul of everything from education to on-the-job training to better prepare French people for changes in technology and the demands of the workplace.
He told parliamentarians he expected a reform of unemployment insurance aimed at encouraging workers to take on new jobs to be on the statute book in the spring of next year.
“The priority of the coming year is simple: build the welfare state of the 21st century,” he said.
In a gesture to left-wing opponents, several of whom boycotted the speech because of the monarchical overtones inherent in its setting, Macron said he would seek to amend the constitution so that lawmakers could debate with the president during joint sessions of parliament.
“Victory! Macron gives in. Next time, he’ll have to listen and answer,” said far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, who earlier derided the French president as “Macron the First”.
But Macron also said his government would unveil plans to cut public spending in the coming weeks - without offering any specifics - a move likely to further aggravate those who say his presidency is more of the political right than the left.
Reporting by Michel Rose; editing by Luke Baker and Richard Balmforth