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Macron redefines tradition with contested speech at Versailles

Eric Feferberg, AFP | Archival picture shows former President François Hollande delivering a speech to a joint session of France’s parliament at Versailles in November 2015.

President Emmanuel Macron on Monday will give a rare speech before both houses of parliament assembled at the sumptuous Versailles chateau, a break from tradition that some people are criticising as unbecoming of French democracy.

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Macron wants to lay bare his “vision” for France during the next five years and beyond, but some opposition lawmakers are boycotting what has been billed as a US-style state of the union address, denouncing it as a costly, unnecessary and even “monarchical” affair.

The 39-year-old president, who rose to power on the promise of transcending political inertia and the old left-right divide, is expected to defend his push to deregulate the labour market to combat unemployment, and expound on France’s place in Europe and the world.

“It will be a key moment in which [Macron] will lay out his vision and the broad guidelines he intends to follow,” Élysée officials told Reuters ahead of the much-publicised speech.

A presidential speech to members of both the National Assembly and Senate at Versailles, the lavish and sprawling chateau built by King Louis XIV to the west of Paris, is not unprecedented, but has only been given during times of crisis. Former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy gathered lawmakers in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession. Socialist François Hollande did it in 2015 after a series of terrorist attacks rocked the country.

“He’s addressing himself not just to the lawmakers, but to the country, to the world and to all his political partners across the world,” Benoît de Valicourt, a political communications consultant, told FRANCE 24 in relation to the Versailles speech.

“He is reviving a dimension of French politics, the authority of the state incarnated in the figure of its president, which the country has not seen since probably General Charles de Gaulle,” Valicourt said.

Macron’s campaigned on the promise of making the Versailles gathering a new annual tradition – an event in which he would outline the accomplishments of his tenure and legislative agenda, much like the speech American presidents give to a joint session of Congress yearly as outlined by the US constitution.

The speech in a building that is symbolic of France’s decadent and long-deposed royalty has nevertheless annoyed some lawmakers, and for different reasons.

Opposing the ‘pharaoh’

While Macron seeks to redefine French political tradition at Versailles on Monday, he will not be the only politician breaking protocol.

The outspoken leftist MP Jean-Luc Mélenchon and members of his relatively new “Unsubmissive France” movement notified the press last week they would not honour the event with their presence. Mélenchon, an unsuccessful presidential candidate, mocked the speech as a “pharaonic excess from the presidential monarchy”.

Lawmakers representing the French Communist Party and two members of the centrist opposition UDI party also said they were boycotting the speech.

Mélenchon’s staunch left-wing camp has already launched a figurative offensive to defy the popular president, earning both ridicule and praise last week by refusing to wear ties during the first sessions of parliament – where Macron’s République en Marche (Republic On The Move) party has a comfortable majority.

Macron’s speech comes a few days after his government unveiled a bill that would allow it to fast-track labour reforms through parliament by simple decrees, measures Mélenchon and others have pledged to vigorously oppose.

The powerful CGT union has called for a nationwide strike and protests on September 12 against labour law reforms that would, among other things, allow French employers to hire and fire workers more easily. Sometimes violent protests against labour reforms dragged on for months last year.

Pulling the rug?

While left-wing lawmakers and unions are preparing to fight Macron’s pro-market, deregulation push, other observers are worriedly pointing to the Versailles speech as an example of the president’s emerging penchant for overstepping his powers.

Macron will speak to lawmakers a day before Prime Minister Édouard Philippe gives his own speech in Paris, an established tradition for the leader of France’s government at the start of his mandate. Nicolas Dupont-Aignant, a former right-wing presidential candidate, last week claimed Macron’s was “humiliating” Philippe by upstaging him in Versailles.

The prime minister’s office has denied there was a conflict between the two leaders or their speeches, saying Macron would unveil a broad vision, while Philippe would offer more specific policy roadmap as well as budget details.

Over the weekend Le Parisien newspaper nevertheless wrote that Macron was keeping his prime minister on an unusually “short leash”. The two men will share the same 10 advisors on fiscal, business and environmental matters, when the prime minister usually enjoys separate advisors, the paper pointed out.

“We get the impression that the president is going to talk in place of the prime minister,” Valicourt agreed in regard to the speech in Versailles. “And it begs the question, is he not pulling the rug out from under his feet?”

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