Macron lays out Covid-19 crisis response in Bastille Day interview

French President Emmanuel Macron said he wants masks to be required in all indoor public places starting on August 1 and acknowledged his controversial pension reform needs "reworking" as he laid out his goals for the future in a televised interview on Tuesday following a scaled-back Bastille Day ceremony.

Macron answered journalists' questions in a Bastille Day interview.
Macron answered journalists' questions in a Bastille Day interview. © Screen grab, France 24

For the first time since 1945, French authorities called off the annual military parade along the Champs-Élysées that usually marks the storming of the Bastille fortress at the start of the French Revolution. Instead, just 2,000 soldiers – half the usual number – gathered at the Place de la Concorde for a pared-down ceremony in which workers on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic were given pride of place. 

Macron chose to renew the tradition of the July 14 president's interview to detail his plans for surmounting the devastating social and economic crisis wrought by the Covid-19 outbreak. He abandoned the ritual after taking office three years ago with a pledge to shake up politics as usual, but his new government is now under pressure to prove it can rise to the unprecedented challenges it is facing.

Acknowledging signs of a resurgence of the virus that has already killed more than 30,000 people in France, Macron said he wanted face masks to be made compulsory in enclosed public spaces as of August 1 — a measure advocated by prominent doctors in recent days.

"We will be ready in the event of a second wave," the French president said, pledging to step up testing and tracing efforts. Macron also said that France would be among the first countries to receive any future vaccine developed by pharmaceutical giant Sanofi.

Pension overhaul

Macron's critics have accused him of initially underestimating and then mishandling the medical crisis. He has limited himself to a few televised addresses since March, while his previous premier Édouard Philippe enjoyed a popularity boost over his perceived steady hand.

Despite billions of euros pledged to minimise the economic damage caused by the pandemic, questions remain over how Macron's administration will foster recovery from a recession expected to destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The French president said his government's "massive" recovery plan would reach €100 billion ($114 billion), on top of more than €460 billion spent so far to limit the economic damage of a costly two-month lockdown.

Macron promised subsidised contracts for youths struggling to enter the job market and payroll tax freezes for companies that hire young workers. He also advocated restraint on company dividends, tying it to the possibility that companies may ask employees to take pay cuts.

Touching on the sensitive subject of pension reform, which saw unions stage France's longest strike in decades over the winter, the French president said the proposed reform needed "reworking" but remained necessary.

Soon after a cabinet re-shuffle last week that saw him take control of a revamped government, new Prime Minister Jean Castex had riled unions by saying he would move quickly to finalise the controversial pension overhaul, which was suspended by the Covid-19 crisis.

Macron said Castex would meet with union leaders in the coming week to renegotiate aspects of the reform, though maintaining that the proposed overhaul was "good and fair".

Green industries

The interview at the Élysée Palace was expected to set out Macron's priorities for the almost two years that remain before he faces a tough re-election battle in 2022.

The centrist president, who was elected on a neither-right-nor-left platform, vehemently rejected suggestions that his newly reshuffled cabinet leant further to the right with the appointment of Castex and the promotion of other defectors from the conservative Les Républicains party. He also defended his decision to promote former budget minister Gérald Darmanin to the interior ministry, despite him being under preliminary investigation over allegations of rape.

>> Critics say choice of Castex as new PM reveals a Macron power grab

Days after his ruling party suffered a humiliating rout in municipal elections dominated by the Greens, Macron said he wanted the fight against climate change enshrined in the French constitution "as soon as possible".

The president said his government would invest heavily in railways to boost freight and redevelop regional lines, "all of which helps to save money and slash carbon emissions". He also stated his ambition to repatriate certains industries in the wake of a pandemic that has exposed the shortcomings of globalisation.

"We won't recreate the industries of old, but we can in France become once again an industrial nation through ecology," he said, adding that new technologies such as 3D printing would help reduce the need for costly imports of raw materials "whose carbon footprint is abominable".

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