Emmanuel macron promised to reform the French welfare state and cut public spending, telling the deputies of the Palace of Versailles that his only ideology is to strive for “French greatness.”
The pro-business, centrist leader, who beat the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in an election a year ago, denied seeking to help the wealthy at the expense of the poor as he sought to shake off accusations that he is a “president of the rich”.
Macron’s approval ratings have dipped particularly among the left and working-class voters, and a majority of French voters question whether they will benefit from his flagship policies including loosening labour laws, cutting corporate taxes and changing the workings of the state rail operator SNCF in the face of union strikes.
An Odoxa survey last week found just 29% of French people thought his policies were fair. He has slashed France’s wealth tax and recently complained that the state spent too much on social security.
On Monday in the president’s yearly address to both houses of parliament, Macron tried to strike a more humble note. “This is an office that, realistically, requires humility,” he said, seated in an ornate meeting hall in the gilded palace of France’s former monarchy. “But humility in oneself, not humility for France.”
He said of the coming year: “The priority is simple: build the welfare state of the 21st century.”
His view of a new welfare state essentially amounts to a move away from a model of redistribution towards a Nordic-style system of “flexi-security” in which the labour market is loosened and the focus is on changing from a rigid labour code to a society of individuals moving between jobs.
Macron promised changes to unemployment benefits, pensions and the health system. He said one in five children in France were living in poverty, and said his overhauled welfare state would mean “getting people out of poverty”, not distributing benefits that kept them in poverty.
He defended his support for business, saying that without strong business there would be no economic “cake” to share out. “It’s false to think we can protect workers without defending our companies,” he said.
But he said he was conscious there was still a fracture between those at the bottom of society and those at the top.
The pro-European president promised “a new patriotism” for France, saying: “The true border splitting Europe is the one which separates progressives from nationalists. We will have to face this for at least a decade.”
The French government will unveil a plan in coming weeks to cut public spending and keep the budget within EU deficit targets. Macron has promised to slash state spending – among the highest among wealthy countries relative to its economy – in order to balance the French budget for the first time in more than 40 years.
A number of lawmakers on the left in the France Unbowed party boycotted the Versailles speech, calling it a “monarchic drift”.
Meanwhile, Le Pen, whose far-right Front National was recently renamed National Rally, began an emergency fundraising drive after her party’s public subsidies were seized by judges investigating illicit funding allegations.
Le Pen vowed to challenge judges’ veto of a €2m (£1.75m) state subsidy payment, saying the decision could kill the party in a matter of weeks. Two magistrates are investigating allegations that the party channelled money destined for European parliamentary assistants towards staff who were instead working purely for the party.