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France reacts to divisive President press conference

France is reacting to an address given by President Emmanuel Macron last night (April 25), with gilets jaunes saying he has “thrown us breadcrumbs”, and critics saying he has “reopened” the political crisis.

In the conference, which lasted for two and half hours in front of more than 300 journalists, Mr Macron presented conclusions from the national Grand Débat.

The address had previously been postponed due to the Notre-Dame cathedral fire.

Mr Macron covered topics such as schools, taxes, pensions, voting, poverty, childhood, terrorism, and the idea of introducing a citizens’ referendum (le référendum d'initiative citoyenne, RIC).

The President notably rejected the RIC - one of the key demands of the gilets jaunes - and instead simply changed the current shared referendum system, lowering the threshold of signatures required to prompt a legal bill to one million, vs the 4.5 million previously needed.

He also rejected the idea of allowing “white/void votes” (votes blancs) - in which voters deliberately abstain and vote for no-one, with these numbers counted alongside others.

He said: “We must choose. Sometimes the least bad option or the best possible. When we are living in difficult times, a ‘vote blanc’ is not enough. It will not resolve any problems. A crisis of democracy is also a crisis in effectiveness, and in our ability to make decisions.”

Mr Macron also defended the controversial removal of the ISF (impôt sur la fortune), saying that it was “a reform for progress, and not a present to the rich”. He also said that he wished to “significantly” reduce income tax for “those who work”.

Mr Macron added that people’s buying power had grown in “ways not seen for 10 years”, and said he had no intention of changing the current working time of 35 hours per week, nor of removing a public holiday (jour férié). He added that his aim of just 7% unemployment was “achievable”.

On pensions, he said that he would not push back the minimum legal age of retirement, and that pension payments “of less than €2,000” would be re-evaluated in line with inflation by 2020.

The President also said that he would take an "uncompromising approach" to "political Islam (Islamism)", and wanted to positively “re-evaluate” the teaching profession, ensuring that primary school classes have no more than 24 pupils each.

Mr Macron ended the press conference promising that “there would be others”. “We will not wait another two years,” he said.


Critics' response

Yet, critics have said that the President’s plans left them “unconvinced”, and some said they were surprised that he had mentioned neither the 80 kph speed limit, nor anything about climate change.

Commentators pointed out that some assertions made during the speech were factually incorrect, including the statement that France's economy is growing faster than many others in Europe, and that the French work less than most of their European neighbours.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise party, said that Mr Macron’s speech had not “closed the political crisis”, but rather “reopened it”.

Socialist MP Rachid Temal said: “The President announced to us that...he will not change anything. He has no serious response.”

Philippe Martinez, secretary general of workers’ union the CGT, said: “What I heard was ‘Everything we are doing is fine, and we will continue’...He did a Grand Débat, and listened, but his conclusion is: ‘What I am doing is fine, and we won’t change anything’.”

Gilets jaunes' reaction

Leading members of the gilets jaunes protesters have also said that Mr Macron “has not listened” to them.

Maxime Nicolle, one leading organiser, said: “He has not listened to what we have been saying in the streets for five months. He started his address by recapping what he had done over the past two years and that it was great, and that we had not understood. But we understand very well. He is incapable of admitting responsibility.”

Many gilets jaunes are disappointed that Mr Macron rejected the idea of introducing an RIC, which had been one of the movement’s key demands.

Mr Nicolle said: “Simply lowering the referendum threshold is completely useless; you would still need Parliament agreement [to proceed]. He has just thrown out some breadcrumbs. Everything has been pushed back, everything is vague, nothing is precise.”

Another voice of the movement, Jérôme Rodrigues, who was injured by an LBD bullet in his eye during a protest, said: “[Macron] is a good talker, he could sell sand to the desert - but this will not take.”

Priscilla Ludosky, the woman who started the petition that first launched the gilets jaunes movement, wrote on social media that she was disappointed that Mr Macron had “not had any words for the injured”.

She then listed the dates of the next protests planned, including those for May 1, which some already fear could become particularly strained.

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