Macron vows to tackle ‘scourge of infertility’ and boost the economy

Emmanuel Macron speaks during a press conference to present the course for France's newly appointed government
Tuesday's press conference was only the third such even held by Mr Macron since he became president in 2017 - Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Emmanuel Macron pledged to “re-arm French fertility” and boost falling birth rates on Tuesday as part of a wide array of measures aimed at reviving his faltering second term.

The French president announced a plan to introduce a six-month parental leave, one of many policies he said was meant to help France become stronger, including getting primary pupils to learn the Marseillaise off by heart.

In a marathon press conference – only his third in six years at the Elysée – he also pledged “order”, “authority” and more economic reforms, as well as cutting red tape and better controlling screen times for children.

“France will also be stronger by boosting its birth rate,” Mr Macron insisted. “Until recently, we were a country where this was the strength, not the uniqueness in Europe, when we compared ourselves with our neighbours. This has become less true in recent years.”

‘Demographic rearmament’

France’s birthrate fell by 7 per cent last year to its lowest level since the end of the Second World War, but it still has the highest birthrate in Europe, at 1.53 children per woman.

“Habits are changing, and people are having children later and later,” said the president. “Infertility, both male and female, has risen sharply in recent years and is causing many couples to suffer. A major plan to combat this scourge will be launched to bring about this demographic rearmament.”

Aired on several television channels at prime time, Tuesday night’s press conference was expected to set the course for Gabriel Attal, his 34-year-old prime minister, after he was named last week.

The wide-ranging speech also included further promises - from testing uniforms in schools to art history and drama classes in secondary schools to “increase confidence” - and came days after the appointment of France’s youngest and first openly gay prime minister.

Accused by opponents of adopting lofty, monarchical tendencies, Mr Macron almost never holds a full-scale press conference at home but regularly answers questions from reporters while abroad.

On international matters, he said France chose not to join Britain and America in launching missile strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen to “avoid any escalation” and to remain a force for “balance” in the Red Sea area.

“But we are there to preserve freedom of navigation. In fact, we have stopped missiles and drones that were about to strike Norwegian ships. So we are acting to protect our own equipment and the equipment of our allies”, he said.

The president also pledged more weapons for Ukraine, including 40 SCALP missiles and “several hundred bombs” and announced his intention to travel to Ukraine in February.

The French president stood by his controversial defence of French actor Gérard Depardieu who was filmed in a recent documentary making sexist comments and is facing rape charges. He denies wrongdoing .

“I have no regrets about having defended the presumption of innocence for a public figure, in this case an artist”, said Mr Macron , who last month hailed “an immense actor” of whom he is a “great admirer” - sparking outrage among feminists.

However, he said: “If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t say enough about the importance of women’s comments.”

He also defended his new education minister, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, who infuriated teachers a day after taking up the post for pulling her oldest son out of state school to attend a private one due to a lack of supply teachers.

He said her comments were “clumsy” but that she had “apologised”.

Mr Macron also spelt out measures concerning children, including regulating, in a way he did not specify, screen time for children.

He said uniforms would be tested in about one hundred schools, adding that there would be more civic instruction classes and that all children in junior high school should have access to drama classes.

Mr Macron also said he would ask his government to launch a new batch of liberal reforms to boost the economy, saying the country needed to be encouraged to “produce more” and “innovate more”.

“France will be stronger if it wins back its financial independence,” he said.

‘Stricter rules when job offers refused’

Mr Macron announced “act two of the labour market reform” with “tougher rules” for refusing a job offer and “better support” for the unemployed.

As a result, there will be “stricter rules when job offers are refused and better support for our unemployed through training”, he added.

Mr Macron has called for the new ministerial team led by Mr Attal to be “revolutionary” and restore a sense of risk-taking dynamism from when he was first elected in 2017. Critics have pointed to a lack of women in mostly unchanged top ministerial posts.

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