Macron aims to put summer scandal behind him with new reform drive
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French President Emmanuel Macron returns to work this week facing difficult choices as he seeks to bounce back from a wretched summer plagued by scandal with a new push for economic change.
The 40-year-old leader gathered his ministers at the Elysée Palace on Wednesday for a first cabinet meeting since the summer holiday.
Macron is hoping the break will help give his policies new impetus after he endured a nightmare political scenario in July. His government survived two no-confidence votes last month following a scandal over a top Macron security aide, Alexandre Benalla, identified in a video as acting violently toward a protester while wearing police equipment.
While the centrist leader promised transparency and an exemplary government before his election, the scandal has raised questions about his team's working methods and actions.
Benalla, who initially stayed in his job before a public uproar led to his dismissal, has since faced initial charges, including committing violent acts and impersonating a police officer.
The latest public opinion polls at the end of July have seen Macron's popularity rate at its lowest level since he was elected in May 2017.
Opponents commonly refer to Macron as "Jupiter”, the Roman king of gods, or "Napoleon" – in a reference to his authoritarian style and tendency to use special powers to pass some key measures without a parliamentary debate.
He is also routinely described as the "president of the rich", owing to his tax cuts for the wealthy and his remarks on the “crazy amount of cash” France spends on welfare benefits. Similar comments were revived by his recent request to build a 34,000-euro ($39,200) swimming pool in the presidential summer residence on the French Riviera.
More labour reform
The French leader took 15 days of vacation, reading books and enjoying the view of turquoise waters. He made only a few public appearances.
He invited British Prime Minister Theresa May for dinner, with Brexit discussions on the agenda. He also had phone calls with several world leaders, including President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Macron's international agenda in the coming weeks will focus on showing a united European front in Brexit negotiations, an official at the Elysée Palace told the Associated Press. The French leader is seeking to strengthen ties between pro-European governments, seen as opposed to rising populism in the European Union. He's notably planning to visit Denmark and Finland at the end of the month and meet with Merkel in early September.
Macron is likely to face a tough task in domestic politics, with his ambitious reforms frustrated by a lower than expected forecast for economic growth.
The French president is planning to further chip away at labour regulations with a bill focusing on helping small businesses to grow by removing some financial and bureaucratic barriers.
Over the past year, his government has struggled to pass labour measures, circumventing parliament, along with a plan to revamp national railway company SNCF. The changes were rejected by unions as weakening workers' hard-won protections, prompting big protests last autumn and spring, and months-long rolling strikes from railway workers.
“The message from Macron’s ministers as they return from their holidays is that the reform programme will gather pace,” said FRANCE 24’s Chris Moore, reporting from the Elysée Palace.
“Their message is that, yes, the reforms will have detractors, sometimes noisy detractors, but they claim there is a silent majority in the country that perhaps regrets these reforms but nonetheless regards them as necessary,” he added.
Moore said ministers were looking to cut back substantially on state jobs, with 12,000 positions set to go, and start working on a major reform of the pension system.
In the short term, housing and subsidised jobs portfolios will see sharp cuts to help meet budget deficit commitments with the EU, which Macron has linked to restoring France’s credibility in Europe.
The government will also detail next month a sweeping overhaul of the public health care system, including hospital financing. The plan will be closely monitored as the French are attached to preserving the system, which is widely considered to be one of the best in the world but is increasingly showing signs of underinvestment.
Meanwhile, key constitutional changes have been delayed because the Benalla scandal interrupted a planned debate in parliament last month. The changes are aimed at fulfilling some of Macron's campaign promises like decreasing the number of lawmakers and accelerating the process to make laws. The government hopes to be able to revive the plan this autumn.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)