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Upbeat Macron defends reform agenda after bruising year

Michel Euler, AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his New Year's Eve address from the Elysée Palace in Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to press on with his reform agenda in 2019 as he delivered his traditional New Year's Eve message on Monday after a gruelling 12 months that saw his approval ratings plummet.

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Click on the player above to watch the French president's address.

Confounding some expectations of a more contrite message, Macron struck an unapologetic note as he urged voters to face up to economic realities underpinning recent reforms of French labour rules, and others yet to come.

"In recent years, we've engaged in a blatant denial of reality," he said in his address, delivered unusually from a standing position in his Elysée Palace office. "We can't work less, earn more, cut taxes and increase spending."

Positive results from his policies "cannot be immediate", the French leader added, pledging to make changes to France's national unemployment insurance and pension system.

Macron’s address capped a rollercoaster year that began promisingly for the 41-year-old president but ended with his ratings sinking to unprecedented lows amid cabinet resignations, street protests and scandals.

It came as "Yellow Vest" protesters angry over high taxes and Macron's pro-business policies have vowed to stage further demonstrations despite rare concessions he announced earlier this month.

The year in review: Emmanuel Macron's rollercoaster 2018

"This anger tells us one thing [...]: that we as a nation are not resigned," Macron said, offering his own reading of the sometimes violent protests that have rocked France in recent weeks.

"We can and must do better," he added, urging French citizens to "stop berating" their country in remarks that recalled his controversial quip that the French should “stop complaining”.

"We live in one of the world's greatest economies, our infrastructures are among the best in the world, we pay little or nothing towards our children's education, our healthcare costs are among the lowest of any developed country and give us access to some of the best doctors," Macron said.

In a thinly veiled jab at politicians who have sought to ride the "Yellow Vest" wave, the French president blasted the self-appointed "spokespersons for hateful crowds".

He also denounced as a "negation of France" those who have mingled with the Yellow Vest protesters to spread hate speech about "police forces, journalists, Jews, foreigners, homosexuals."

Analysis: 'The year Jupiter plunged from Mount Olympus'

Almost 20 months after he became France's youngest president, Macron's popularity is at the lowest level recorded in modern French history. It stood at just 24% in late December compared to 47% recorded a year earlier.

A scandal over his former bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, who was eventually fired after video emerged of him beating protestors, has also resurfaced with reports that he continued to travel on diplomatic passports and exchange messages with Macron long after his dismissal.

The French president said efforts to bolster international checks on immigration and tax evasion would be at the heart of European Union proposals he plans to announce in "coming weeks" to be pursued in parallel with a domestic agenda reconciling ambitious reform with France's commitment to social solidarity.

"This is the line I have followed since the first day of my mandate, and which I plan to keep following," he said. "This coming year, 2019, is in my view a decisive one."

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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