The French government “can do better” at improving the lives the country’s citizens, President Emmanuel Macron has said in his highly-anticipated New Year’s Eve address as “yellow vest” protesters again took to the streets in parts of the country.
“We can do better and must do better,” Macron said in a 16-minute televised speech from the Elysee Palace on Monday.
But the 41-year-old centrist also struck an unapologetic note as he urged voters to “accept the reality” that increased public spending was not the answer to their problems, as well as face up to economic realities underpinning recently enacted reforms.
“In recent years, we’ve engaged in a blatant denial of reality,” Macron said in the address, delivered unusually from a standing position. “We can’t work less, earn more, cut taxes and increase spending.”
The speech came at the end of a torrid period for Macron, whose leadership has been rattled by six weeks of anti-government demonstrations.
“I believe in us,” he said, as he attempted to turn the page on the crisis and start 2019 on an upbeat note.
Citing hopes for more “truth, dignity and hope” in 2019, he urged the French: “Let’s stop running ourselves down and making believe that France is a country where solidarity doesn’t exist.”
“We live in one of the biggest economies in the world, with some of the best infrastructure in the world, we pay little or nothing for our children’s schooling and we are treated by excellent doctors at some of the lowest costs in the developed world,” he said.
While acknowledging the need for improved public services, particularly in rural areas where the yellow vest movement sprang up over anger at fuel taxes, he noted that public spending already amounted to over half of the country’s output.
As he spoke, demonstrators clad in high-visibility yellow vests again gathered in the capital, Paris, and other big cities to demand more measures in favour of the working poor and a greater say for ordinary people in the running of the country, in the form of citizen-sponsored referendums.
Several dozen protesters joined tens of thousands of tourists gathered on the famous Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris – the scene of pitched battles between protesters and police on several consecutive weekends before Christmas – for a New Year’s fireworks display.
In the southwestern city of Bordeaux, dozens of “yellow vests” occupied a major bridge.
As in Paris, the protesters said they intended the evening to be one of celebration, not of unrest. The protests look set to continue into 2019.
Nearly 150,000 security force members were deployed around the country to keep the peace.
Macron took aim at the far-left and hard-right groupings active on the fringes of the often violent protests, decrying self-appointed “spokespeople for a hateful mob” who he said had targeted foreigners, Jews, gays and the press.
He also vowed not to be swayed from his reform agenda, which was thrown into question after he jettisoned his controversial fuel tax hike and announced 10 billion euros ($11.48bn) in aid for the low-paid to try to tame the revolt.
Among the priorities he listed for 2019 were trimming the bloated public sector, as well as the unemployment and pension systems.
With an eye on European Parliament elections in May, he also announced plans to put forward a “renewed European project” based on “regaining control of our lives”, citing fiscal justice, agriculture, migration and security as areas where joint European Union action was needed.
“Clearly, what he’s had to say has been affected by the yellow vest protests in the last couple of months and clearly a lot of what he was saying was addressing those concerns,” Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Paris, said.