No Respite From Reform, Macron Tells Angry Rail Workers, Seniors

(Bloomberg) -- President Emmanuel Macron told France’s angry railway workers, retirees, farmers and blue-collar workers that he will stick to his guns and resolutely continue to reform the country “to its foundations.”

Speaking in an hour-long interview with TF1 television from a primary-school classroom in Berd’huis, a village in Normandy in western France, Macron vowed to pursue his agenda, ceding little ground to those who’ve taken to the streets to express their anger.

“I am asking you to trust me,” Macron said Thursday, with a backdrop of a wall plastered with colorful children’s artwork. “I want to change things and I will not let up.” Dressed in a blue suit, the president spoke vividly, gesturing with his hands and frequently leaning into the camera.

The 40-year-old leader went 170 kilometers (106 miles) away from his gilded Elysee palace to the rural school in a village of 1,083 inhabitants to explain his wide-ranging plans, from the reform of national rail operator SNCF, education and speed limits on secondary roads to taxes for retirees. The last time a French president was on the popular midday news show was in 1995, when then-president Jacques Chirac sought to defend his reforms as the country was paralyzed by a general strike.

Faced with the biggest test of his presidency yet, Macron is appearing on television twice this week -- today and in the evening on Sunday.

‘To the End’

He promised to carry his reform of France’s railway system through “to the end” and not back down in face of the strikes. “I respect the railway workers, their fight, but I am asking them also to think of their fellow citizens who are struggling,” he said.

Macron’s plan is to end SNCF’s monopoly and progressively scrap social advantages for rail workers, while keeping the company state owned and taking over a part of its multi-billion-euro debt. An Elabe survey published by BFM Television showed Wednesday that 46 percent of the French oppose the SNCF strike, up 5 points from a week before.

The president thanked France’s angry retirees for the extra “effort” they’re putting by “accepting to help the youth and the workers” to contribute to the country’s modernization. Macron has raised taxes for retirees.

Economic Revival

Macron also commented on France’s economy after his government Tuesday raised its growth outlook to 2 percent for this year and 1.9 percent in 2019, more than the September projection of 1.7 percent for both years. The budget deficit will shrink to 2.3 percent this year compared with a previous projection of 2.6 percent, it forecast.

“We’re showing a path and people are coming back to invest” he said. Macron is trying to push through reforms without denting public spending in a significant way, as required by the European Union. At more than 54 percent of gross domestic product, France’s public spending is the second-highest in Europe after Finland, OECD figures show.

Macron’s current five-year mandate runs through 2022. Opinion polls published this month show his popularity is sliding on average by about 3 points. Pollster Elabe puts his approval rating at 39 percent -- falling among blue collar workers to 27 percent and in the middle class to 41 percent. It up to 65 percent for white-collar workers. An Ifop survey shows his popularity is much higher than his predecessors after almost one year in the job.

Macron once again brushed aside accusations that he’s the “President of the Rich,” saying “The rich don’t need a president; they can take care of themselves. I am the president of all French people.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.