Amid high unemployment, president touts need for retraining
PARIS (Reuters) — French President Emmanuel Macron's quick tongue has repeatedly landed him in trouble since he took office, but he shows no signs of backing away from his straight talk, telling an unemployed man he could easily get a job if he tried.
Despite crumbling poll numbers — his approval rating has fallen to 31 per cent from above 60 per cent shortly after he was elected last year, according to Ifop — Macron seems convinced that "telling it how it is" is what the nation needs.
During an open-house at the Elysee Palace over the weekend, the 40-year-old president chatted with members of the public, including a 25-year-old man who said he had a diploma in gardening but was finding it difficult to land a job.
Macron, a former investment banker, asked if he had tried the restaurant or hotel trade, to which the man shook his head.
"If you're keen and motivated, in the hotel trade, cafes, restaurants, the building trade even — there's nowhere I go that people don't tell me they're looking to hire," the president told him, speaking frankly but not unkindly.
"Honestly. Hotels, cafes, restaurants — if I cross the road I can find you something. They simply want people who are ready to work," he persisted, suggesting that the man look around Montparnasse, a touristy district of Paris.
France's 24-hour news channels played video of the exchange in a loop, calling it the latest gaffe from Macron, who has previously referred to people as "slackers," berated striking workers for "kicking up a bloody fuss" and upbraided a young boy for addressing him too familiarly.
Government members rallied around Macron on Monday, arguing that straight talk is what voters want, rather than the spin and doublespeak — known as 'langue de bois' in France — so common in politics.
"If he'd had a conversation with the man and said to him: 'that's terrible, give me your CV, we'll call you'... that would have been total 'langue de bois'," Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin told RTL radio.
The finance, education and environment ministers mounted a similar defense, saying Macron's economic reforms — some of which are already in force while others are to be unveiled soon — were aimed at retraining the jobless to find work in new areas.
French unemployment is stuck at around nine per cent, with many people unable to find work in their field while other sectors, such as the hospitality industry, are always short of staff.
Last week, a union representing hotel, cafe and restaurant employees asked the government to speed up its asylum process to allow migrants to secure work permits more quickly and fill thousands of empty jobs.
Christophe Castaner, the head of Macron's party, who is battling to keep the movement tight amid falling popularity and the resignation of a high-profile member at the weekend, said Macron's assessment on finding work was right.
"I prefer a president who tells it straight," he said, pointing out that you can't create jobs to match people's training, but you can train people to do jobs the economy needs.
"Gardening work has fallen in recent years," he said, underlining that there was no contempt for the unemployed. "This young man, we need to help him get the right training."