Macron under fire over comments on French people

France’s president lamented ‘Gauls who are resistant to change’ during trip to Denmark

French president Emmanuel Macron looks on during a meeting with Denmark’s prime minister in Copenhagen on Tuesday. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

French president Emmanuel Macron looks on during a meeting with Denmark’s prime minister in Copenhagen on Tuesday. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

 

Emmanuel Macron has been attacked by political opponents for describing French people as “Gauls who are resistant to change” during a trip to Denmark.

In Copenhagen, the pro-business French president repeated his habit of using trips abroad to make deliberately headline-grabbing comments about how French people back home tend to be stuck in their ways.

Addressing a gathering of expats, the 40-year-old centrist first expressed admiration for Denmark’s economic model before lamenting France’s resistance to it.

The Nordic system – which combines the welfare state with a flexible labour market where it is easy to hire and fire – has in part inspired Mr Macron’s loosening of French labour laws and his controversial planned overhaul of French unemployment benefits.

But the French president then said cultural differences between the “Lutheran” Danes and the French “Gauls” made it difficult to adopt the Nordic system in France.

“Let’s not be naive, what is possible is linked to a culture, to a people who are the product of their history,” he said. “These Lutheran people, who have experienced transformations in recent years, are not like the Gauls who are resistant to change,” he said, using a term for the ancient tribes that roamed France more than 2,000 years ago.

The far-right Marine Le Pen, who was defeated by Mr Macron in last year’s presidential election and is attempting to challenge him in the European elections next spring, called him “arrogant”.

The traditional rightwing party Les Républicains said he was insulting “French identity” and that France was proud of its obstinate cartoon character Gauls: Asterix and Obelix.

The hard-left France Unbowed party said Macron was showing “disdain” to the French people. Trade unionists warned that the implication was that Gauls were mere commoners, beneath the kings.

Mr Macron shot back that he had been “humorous” and stood by his comments on changing France. He told reporters: “I love France, I love our people and I think what our neighbours, partners and friends want to see is a France that is proud of itself and knows how to look hard at itself and history and the transformations under way.”

He added: “It’s not contemptuous to tell the truth. We are not a country with a culture of consensus, of adjustments little by little.”

Previous incidents

Mr Macron has often used foreign trips to lament France’s resistance to reform.

In Greece last year he sparked controversy over his use of the term “slackers” when he blasted what he deemed lazy, cynical and extreme opponents to change in France.

But some observers saw Mr Macron’s comments in Copenhagen as a bid to turn the spotlight back onto economic policy and his programme for European reform in the face of dipping poll ratings, slower growth predictions, stubborn unemployment and cabinet troubles at home.

This week, Mr Macron suffered a blow when his popular environment minister Nicolas Hulot suddenly quit government, saying the young president was not doing enough to counter climate change. He attacked Macron for being in thrall to powerful business and industry lobbies and interest groups.

This was damaging as the French president had styled himself as “making the planet great again” to counter Donald Trump’s decision to remove the US from the Paris climate accords.

Mr Macron – a political newcomer who, when he came to power last year, promised to break away from the establishment cronyism of the past – also came under fire for appointing his close personal friend, the French novelist Philippe Besson, to the plum post of consul general for France in Los Angeles.

Mr Besson is close to Macron and his wife Brigitte and wrote an overwhelmingly positive book on how Macron won the presidency in May 2017.

“There is no cronyism in exchange for favours,” Mr Macron told reporters after the appointment, saying he wanted “to open up all of the top state jobs to people with talent and strengths from all walks of life”. – Guardian