By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) – Shaken by five months of often-violent “yellow vest” protests, Emmanuel Macron will announce a package of measures that could include lower taxes and the abolition of France’s elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration to quell the unrest.
The street rebellion erupted over planned diesel tax hikes but morphed into a broader backlash against inequality and a political elite perceived as having lost touch with the common person. Protesters clashed with police for a 23rd straight week on Saturday.
Macron’s policy response is the result of a three-month long national debate, during which he rolled up his sleeves on a weekly basis to discuss issues from high taxes to local democracy and decaying shopping streets with local mayors, working parents, students and workers.
For Macron, whose monarchical governing style early on prompted accusations of arrogance among voters and contributed to a sharp drop in his popularity, his first news conference at the Elysee palace will be crucial to regain lost ground with voters.
“He wants to break the image of someone who’s stubborn and who never listens to anybody,” Arnaud Mercier, an expert in political communication at the Institut Français de Presse at Assas University in Paris, told Reuters.
Macron is expected to relaunch a reform drive that started with a bang with an easing of labour regulation in the first months of his mandate but which was derailed by the protests.
The president wanted 2019 to see an overhaul of pensions – unifying into one myriads of different pension systems including deficit-ridden ones at state-owned companies – and unemployment insurance. But little progress has been made on these.
Instead, Macron had to pour 10 billion euros into raising benefits for the poorest workers and halting tax rises on fuel in the face of the yellow vest protests.
“It’s also a symbol that he wants to launch the start of Act Two of his mandate,” Mercier said.
Macron was initially scheduled to announce the policy measures last Monday but was forced to postpone after a fire tore through the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, badly damaging a symbol of France’s national soul.
Most of the policies he was to lay out have been leaked.
They included, French media reported, a cut in income tax, re-linking the lowest pensions with inflation, halting the closure of hospitals and schools in rural areas, and abolishing the ENA civil service college that has for many become a symbol of a privileged elite.
The Elysee did not confirm or deny the policies.
While the leaks may have spoiled the “wow effect” Macron was hoping for, it may also have given the 41-year-old a chance to gauge public reaction.
In a sign Macron has not given up on his reform agenda, he is also expected to announce measures to make the French “work more”, French media reported, a potentially explosive move in a country where pension and labour reforms often push millions onto the streets.
Lawmakers in Macron’s party did not rule out possible changes to the 35-hour working week or the scrapping of a bank holiday to fund measures to help take care of older people.
“There should be no disavowal of the first part of the mandate, but there should be no stubbornness either,” Sibeth Ndiaye, the government’s spokeswoman, told reporters.
The leaked reforms were met with underwhelming reactions from prominent “yellow vest” figures and political opponents.
“We’ll surely have a lot of things to say after the predictable disappointment from Macron’s announcements, if the leaks in the media are any guide,” Sophie Tissier, a high profile “yellow vest” figure, told BFM TV.
(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Peter Graff)