France's Macron promises tax cuts in response to protests

Paris (AFP) - President Emmanuel Macron Thursday promised significant tax cuts but also a return to public order in France as he revealed his long-awaited response to nearly half a year of street protests.

In the first major domestic news conference of his entire presidency, Macron steered clear of bombshell announcements, but he promised to accelerate his reform programme -- but deliver it in a less abrasive manner.

"I want (tax) cuts for people who work by significantly reducing income taxes," said Macron in his headline policy announcement at the news conference inside the Elysee Palace.

He said the cuts would be worth five billion euros and financed by eliminating corporate tax breaks, longer work hours and reductions in public spending.

The measures come on top of package of tax cuts and income top-ups worth 10 billion euros which was announced in December after the first month of protests by the "yellow vests".

Macron, 41, swept to power in 2017 on hopes he would be a youthful breath of fresh air for France.

But over the past half year, the momentum has been knocked out of his presidency by the anti-government movement which has held weekly protests against social inequality and his governing style.

- 'Not listened' -

The former investment banker stressed throughout the news conference that he would stick to the promise of his original pro-business, pro-work programme, while defending his record.

"Should we stop everything we did the last two years? Did we go the wrong way? I think totally the opposite," he said.

Venturing into hugely controversial territory, he said that the French should work longer hours.

"When I look at us compared with our European neighbours, we work less during the week and less during the year," he said.

Criticised for often seeming aloof to people's daily concerns -- in one episode telling an unemployed man to "cross the road" to find a job -- Macron attempted to show a more humble side.

He said the second part of his mandate would be "more humane" and said he regretted giving a sense of "always giving out orders, being hard, sometimes unfair".

He said he wanted to put the "human being at the heart of the agenda" with a "new method" of governance that would see citizens play a larger part.

Predictably, the message did not go down well with key figures in the "yellow vest" movement.

"He has not listened to what we have been saying in the street the last five months," prominent activist Maxime Nicolle told AFP. "We understand now that he is incapable of a mea culpa."

Macron's announcements came after a vast listening exercise called the Great National Debate launched in response to the protests where high taxes emerged as one of the main gripes.

The news conference took place 10 days late, after a planned televised speech was delayed by the Notre-Dame fire and, in a major embarrassment, then leaked to the media.

- 'With all my strength' -

He recognised that the "yellow vest" movement had led to many in France feeling "anger and impatience for change" and praised its "just demands".

But he lamented that the movement had "transformed progressively" and been hijacked partly by extremist groups responsible for recent anti-Semitic violence, attacks on journalists and homophobia.

He said the hatred seen in some of the demonstrations marked a "regression in civic morality and education and I will fight against it with all my strength."

Macron said "today, above all, public order will return and with it an essential accord" in French society.

He also announced that he wanted to scrap the elite ENA post-graduate school -- a factory for top French bureaucrats and presidents including Macron himself since 1945 and seen as a symbol of French elitism.

"We will need to abolish ENA, among others, to be able to build something else," the French president said.

Opinion polls show Macron's popularity rating stuck on or even under 30 percent, a far cry from the heady days after his inauguration when his approval rating was over 60 percent.

Macron was also asked about his personal ambitions, having seen his predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande only last one term in office.

He claimed all his attention was on the second act of his first mandate. "I don't care about the next election," said Macron, insisting he was still prepared to take unpopular decisions.

He also admitted to differences with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, including on Brexit where Paris has taken a tougher line than Paris, and said both sides should accept "fruitful confrontations".