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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 January 2019

Upbeat Macron vows to do better amid 'yellow vests' protests

French president rings in 2019 by trying to turn page on protest chaos

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he poses for a photograph after recording his New Year's speech at the Elysee Palace. AP
French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he poses for a photograph after recording his New Year's speech at the Elysee Palace. AP

The French government “can do better” at improving citizens’ lives, President Emmanuel Macron said in his New Year’s Eve address as “yellow vest” protesters again took to the country’s streets.

Mr Macron gave a 16-minute speech from the Elysee Palace, urging the French to “accept the reality” that increased public spending was not the answer to their problems.

His speech was keenly awaited at the end of a difficult six weeks for the French president, whose leadership has been damaged by weeks of demonstrations that have repeatedly turned violent.

On Monday, Mr Macron tried to start the new year on an upbeat note.

“I believe in us,” he said. “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.”

While acknowledging the need for better public services, particularly in rural areas where the yellow-vest movement began over anger at fuel taxes, Mr Macron said public spending was already more than half of France’s output.

As he spoke, demonstrators clad in their high-visibility vests gathered in Paris and other cities. They demanded more for the working poor and a greater say for the public in running the country through citizen-sponsored referendums.

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Read more:

Damage to French economy mounts as 'yellow-vest' protests continue

Macron’s ratings fall further after month of protests

France's 'yellow vest' protests decline on fifth weekend

'Yellow vests' protests leave France shattered and divided

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Several dozen protesters joined tens of thousands of tourists gathered on the famous Champs-Elysees in Paris – the scene of pitched battles between protesters and police on consecutive weekends before Christmas – for a New Year fireworks display.

In the south-western city of Bordeaux, dozens of the protesters occupied a major bridge, saying they intended the evening to be one of celebration, not unrest. But the protests look likely to continue into this year.

Almost 150,000 security officers were posted around the country to keep the peace.

Mr Macron criticised the radical fringe of the yellow vests and their supporters on the far right and hard left, saying “some who claim to speak in the name of the people” acted as the “megaphones of a hate-filled crowd”.

“Republican order will be ensured with no leniency,” he said.

Mr Macron said politicians, members of the security forces, journalists, Jews, foreigners and homosexuals were being subjected to physical and verbal attacks.

He pledged not to be swayed from his reform agenda, which was thrown into question after he dropped the fuel tax increase and announced €10 billion (Dh42.33bn) in aid for the low-paid to try to pacify the protesters.

Among the priorities Mr Macron listed for this year were trimming the public sector, as well as the unemployment and pension systems.

A 'yellow vests' protester wear a vest reading 'Go Macron, President of the Rich, Bleeder of the Poor' as a large crowd gathers on the Champs Elysees at New Year. EPA
A 'yellow vests' protester wear a vest reading 'Go Macron, President of the Rich, Bleeder of the Poor' as a large crowd gathers on the Champs Elysees at New Year. EPA

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”. He said fiscal justice, agriculture, migration and security needed unified EU action.

The yellow vest movement waned significantly in the past fortnight but the protesters mixing with revellers posed a challenge for the police.

France remains on high alert because of the threat of terrorism. The latest attack was on December 11 when five people were killed by a gunman at a Christmas market in Strasbourg. On New Year’s Eve, many French youths from poor areas of the country set fire to hundreds of cars in what has become an annual tradition that keeps police busy.

A poll published on Monday showed that 31 per cent of respondents had a positive opinion of Mr Macron, down one point in a month.

But the figure was sharply higher than other polls, some of which show him with an approval rating in the low 20s.

Mr Macron faced more embarrassment on Monday from his disgraced former bodyguard, who revealed that he continued to exchange messages regularly with the president even after he was forced out of his job in July over a scandal.

Alexandre Benalla was caught on video roughing up protesters in May while wearing a police helmet.

Last week it was revealed that, despite being sacked from his job, he has continued to travel on a diplomatic passport.

Updated: January 1, 2019 07:56 PM

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