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Macron to announce measures to quell yellow vest anger

President Macron praises work of Parisian firefighters following Notre Dame Cathedral fire, April 18, 2019
President Macron praises work of Parisian firefighters following Notre Dame Cathedral fire, April 18, 2019 ©Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS

After five months of often-violent "yellow vest" protests, President Emmanuel Macron will announce much-awaited measures this evening on prime-time TV. They could include lower taxes and the abolition of France's elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration as a way of quelling the unrest.

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Street protests broke out last November over planned diesel tax hikes but morphed into a broader backlash against inequality and a political elite seen as having lost touch with the common person. Last Saturday protesters clashed with police for the 23rd consecutive week.

Macron's policy response is the result of a three-month long national debate, during which he regularly rolled up his sleeves to discuss issues from high taxes to local democracy with local mayors, working parents, students and workers.

For Macron, whose monarchical governing style early on prompted accusations of arrogance among voters and contributed to a sharp drop in his popularity, his first news conference at the Elysee palace will be crucial to regain lost ground with
voters.

"He wants to break the image of someone who's stubborn and who never listens to anybody," Arnaud Mercier, a political communications expert at the Institut Français de Presse at Assas University in Paris, told Reuters.

Macron is expected to relaunch a package of reforms that began with the controversial freeing up of labour law in the early months of his mandate but which was derailed by the protests.

The president wanted to introduce an overhaul of pensions in 2019 - unifying a range of different pension systems including deficit-ridden ones at state-owned companies - and unemployment insurance. But there's been little progess.

Instead Macron had to pour 10 billion euros into raising benefits for the poorest workers and halting tax increases on fuel in response to the yellow vest protests.

"It's also a symbol that he wants to launch the start of Act Two of his mandate," Mercier said.

Some measures already leaked

Macron was initially scheduled to announce the policy measures last Monday but had to postpone after the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral.

Most of the policies he was due to announce have been leaked.

According to French media, they include a cut in income tax, re-indexing the lowest pensions with inflation, an end to the closure of hospitals and schools in rural areas, and abolishing the ENA civil service college that has for many become a symbol of a privileged elite.

The Elysee has neither confirmed or denied the policies.

While the leaks may have spoiled the surprise Macron was hoping for, it has also have given him a chance to gauge public reaction.

In a sign Macron has not given up on his reform agenda, he is also expected to announce measures to make the French "work more", French media reported. 

Lawmakers in Macron's Republic on the Move (REM) party did not rule out possible changes to the 35-hour working week or scrapping a bank holiday to fund measures to help take care of older people.

"There should be no disavowal of the first part of the mandate, but there should be no stubbornness either," Sibeth Ndiaye, the government's spokeswoman, told reporters.

The leaked reforms have been met with underwhelming reactions from prominent "yellow vest" figures and political opponents.

"We'll surely have a lot of things to say after the predictable disappointment from Macron's announcements, if the leaks in the media are any guide," Sophie Tissier, a high profile "yellow vest" figure, told BFM TV.

(with REUTERS)

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