Macron urges end to ‘hateful’ attacks around protests

French president employs inclusive tone to reiterate plan to overhaul social welfare state

French president Emmanuel Macron: criticised a minority who were “megaphones of a hateful crowd who have lashed out at elected politicians, security forces, journalists, Jews, foreigners, homosexuals”. Photograph:  Michel Euler/EPA

French president Emmanuel Macron: criticised a minority who were “megaphones of a hateful crowd who have lashed out at elected politicians, security forces, journalists, Jews, foreigners, homosexuals”. Photograph: Michel Euler/EPA

 

French president Emmanuel Macron has called on the nation to unite, stop “hateful” attacks during protests and avoid falling for “false information” online amid anti-government demonstrations that have sometimes turned violent.

Mr Macron – whose approval ratings have plummeted in 2018 as he failed to shake the label “president of the rich” and faced an unprecedented citizens’ protest movement – went on the offensive in his televised new year’s speech.

He deliberately did not name the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement that has been demonstrating against the government at road blockades and weekly city centre protests for six weeks. But he criticised what he called a minority who, he said, claimed to be the voice of the people but were in fact “megaphones of a hateful crowd who have lashed out at elected politicians, security forces, journalists, Jews, foreigners, homosexuals”.

Mr Macron said this hatefulness was “the negation of France” and that “our future depends on our capacity to love each other and to love our nation”. He said he had “seen the unthinkable and heard the unacceptable” in recent weeks and that “order” in France would be maintained.

Mr Macron spoke as more than 147,000 security forces were mobilised across the country for new year’s celebrations, not just because of the terrorist threat in France but also because authorities feared surprise demonstrations by anti-government protesters.

Preventing violence

Over the past decade, hundreds of cars have been set alight on the edge of French cities including Strasbourg and Lyon on New Year’s Eve in what has become a kind of end-of-year ritual. But officials said security services were on the alert for unannounced anti-government protests in order to prevent violence.

The gilets jaunes movement, named after protesters’ hi-vis vests, began in November as a tax revolt against a new fuel duty. It has morphed into a nationwide protest against what has been seen as an unfair and unjust tax policy, and Mr Macron’s measures favouring businesses and the wealthy. Rioting, arson and running battles with police have occurred on the edge of demonstrations in Paris and other cities.

In his new year speech, Mr Macron acknowledged the anger that had spread across France and tried to empathise. But he said it had been brewing for a long time – implying he did not accept the blame but instead laid responsibility on decades of mass unemployment and what he has called years of political stagnation.

Public mood

Mr Macron tried to channel the positivity of the anger, saying it “showed us that we’re not resigned to anything, that our country wants to build a better future”.

He was careful to use the words “us” and “we” to avoid appearing cut off from the public mood. After he was mocked for the staid style of a recent televised speech aimed at calming the protests, which was delivered seated at a desk in a gilded room, this time Mr Macron stood up in a more modern room in the Elysee Palace.

After some in Mr Macron’s shrinking supporter base feared he would step back from his manifesto promise of structural reforms because of the unrest, the president went on the offensive, vowing to press on with his plans to overhaul the social welfare state and social protection in 2019, beginning with changes to unemployment benefits.

He said of his changes so far, including loosening of labour laws: “The results can’t be immediate, and impatience – which I share – can’t justify any kind of giving up.” He repeated his argument that unbridled, lawless “ultra free-market” capitalism was at its end, suggesting he wanted to reinvent a new form of responsible globalisation in a Europe that “protects”.