PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday the European Union has failed to protect the less well off as it pushes a neo-liberal agenda, signalling a more critical stance as eurosceptics make gains before elections next spring.
In recent months Macron has framed elections to the European Parliament next May as a battle between anti-immigrant nationalists and pro-EU 'progressives'.
On Tuesday he addressed voters' concerns that have boosted support for far-right and eurosceptic parties in France, and drew parallels with Britain's departure from the EU.
"We need to hear the fear and anger. There's anger against a Europe that has become too ultra-liberal," Macron told France's Europe 1 radio in an interview.
"This anger is directed at an ultra-liberal Europe which no longer allows our middle classes to live decently," he said, using a term associated in France with an excessively free-market ideology.
An Ifop survey published on Sunday showed the far-right Rassemblement National party, formerly the National Front, has moved ahead of Macron's Republique En Marche party for the first time in a poll for the European elections. It also showed far-right and anti-EU parties with combined support of 30 percent, up from 25 percent at the end of August.
Macron said Brexit was the result of disenchantment of the working and middle classes with Europe and the City of London financial centre.
"When Britain decides to leave Europe, it's the middle classes which say: this Europe you're selling me, it makes the City better off but I, in the country or industrial towns, I'm worse off," he said. "We need to hear that, so we need a Europe that protects workers more."
The French leader, who has championed a pro-business agenda at home including labour reforms and privatisations, has at the same time tried to placate protectionist instincts in France by touting a 'Europe that protects'.
On Tuesday, Macron also said Europe needed to build a real army to become less reliant on the United States and in the face of a resurgent Russia.
"We won't protect Europeans if we don't decide to have a real European army," Macron said.
"Faced with Russia, which is near our borders and has shown it could be threatening - I want to build a real security dialogue with Russia, which is a country I respect, a European country - but we must have a Europe that can defend itself on its own without relying only on the United States," he added.
(Reporting by Michel Rose and Sarah White; editing by David Stamp)