PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron gathered his new government for its first post-reshuffle meeting on Wednesday and struck a contrite tone, looking to reboot his presidency after months of criticism and slumping polls.
“People expect us to show steadfastness and coherence,” he told the 35-member cabinet, a day after shaking up the administration and appointing close ally Christophe Castaner as interior minister, responsible for police and internal security.
“For me, the object of this government is simple: to build a power for the 21st century. Every day we need to explain the reforms being made, respond to concerns, but know that any single response doesn’t hold unless we have a stronger nation.”
In a pre-recorded, televised address to the nation on Tuesday night, hours after carrying out the long-awaited reshuffle, Macron acknowledged making mistakes in his first 17 months in office, including off-the-cuff remarks that have led people to accuse him of arrogance and self-importance.
“My determination and my plain-speaking may have upset or shocked some of you, and I hear the criticism,” he said, adding that he understood citizens were eager to see results from his reform agenda.
“I know there is impatience, I share it,” the 40-year-old former investment banker said. “Gradually, I’m sure, your daily life will get better because the government is on the right track and, above all, getting to the root of the problems.”
Macron enjoyed a bullish first few months in office, with business and consumer confidence improving and unemployment falling, but his fortunes have turned in recent months.
GDP growth forecasts for this year have been scaled back from 2.0 percent to 1.7 percent, the fall in unemployment has stalled and there is general consternation around Macron’s reform agenda.
But it is more the style of his presidency that has rankled. His remarks berating striking workers for “kicking up a bloody mess” or dismissing critics of his labor reforms as “slackers” have turned off many voters.
A scandal involving an Elysee Palace bodyguard caught on camera beating up May Day protesters further tarnished his reputation.
Polls once showed more than 60 percent approval for Macron’s leadership, but now hover around 30 percent.
Even former members of his inner circle are critical. When former interior minister Gerard Collomb quit this month, he spoke of a lack of humility in Macron’s team and the risk of hubris - excessive pride that leads to a downfall.
The next presidential election is not due until 2022, and the political opposition is largely in disarray. But Macron’s reform program is so ambitious that he must stick to a tight schedule to carry it out.
Already there have been delays - planned changes to the number of parliamentarians and the introduction of some proportional representation have been postponed. But Macron was clear on Wednesday that plans to overhaul the pensions and unemployment benefits systems would not be knocked off course.
“We have a nation to transform,” he told the ministers. “The workload before us is immense ... the goal remains the same.”
Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier; Editing by Andrew Roche