PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron’s remark that he will not bow to “slackers” who resist labour reforms looked set to dog the image-conscious French leader, with opponents casting him as a champion of the wealthy and big business.
The Elysee Palace and government ministers have scrambled to contain the fallout, saying the 39-year-old was referring to past leaders who lacked the courage to push through unpopular changes and accusing his opponents of twisting his comments.
Macron, who on Tuesday visited islands in the Caribbean damaged by Hurricane Irma, has himself shown little contrition.
“I am fully determined and I won’t cede any ground, not to slackers, nor cynics, nor hardliners,” he said on Friday during a trip to Greece.
His opponents were quick to pounce, branding him an out-of-touch president who has put himself above the person in the street.
“Fools, cynics, slackers, everyone take to the streets on Sept. 12 and 23,” Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the hard-left France Unbowed party, said on Twitter, referring to two days of street protests.
Philippe Martinez, head of the far-left CGT trade union, called Macron’s comment “scandalous”.
“Who is the president referring to when he says he won’t give an inch to slackers? To the millions without a job or in a vulnerable position?”
Macron’s centrist government announced measures in August to hand more power to companies to set working conditions and adapt pay to market conditions, as well as making it easier to hire and fire employees.
The president says the measures are needed to spur job creation, boost growth and attract investment. Unions say workers’ rights are being eroded and benefits undermined.
Macron faced his first challenge on the streets on Tuesday when thousands of CGT trade unionists protested in cities across France.
In Bordeaux, protesters chanted: “Macron you’re screwed, the slackers are in the streets” while in Paris others carried placards reading: “Slacker on strike”.
Asked on Monday if he regretted his comment, he replied: “We cannot move forward if we don’t tell it like it is.”
“It’s Macron’s style,” said Jerome Fourquet of pollster IFOP. “He’s not going to back down, make apologies. That carries a risk.”
Macron is not the first French leader to offend people with a casual comment.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy caused uproar while interior minister when in 2005 he branded youths behind the worst urban violence in France in decades as “racaille” (“scum” or “rabble”).
That remark entrenched Sarkozy’s reputation as a bully in the suburbs blighted by crime and unemployment outside Paris.
Sarkozy’s successor, Francois Hollande, suffered with the publication of a tell-all book in which his former partner accused the Socialist leader of describing the poor as “toothless”, undermining his efforts to portray himself as in touch with the needy.
Before joining a protest in Marseille, Melenchon, who bills himself as a champion of French workers and rails against globalisation, said: “Mr Macron knows he has a battle on his hands. He picked it.”
Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier in Paris and Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille; Editing by Janet Lawrence