PARIS — A sober-sounding President Emmanuel Macron presented himself to journalists at the Élysée Palace on Thursday night for the first news conference of his presidency, chastened by five months of often violent anti-government protests.
Mr. Macron was the protesters’ principal target as the perceived president of the rich. So Thursday he promised to undertake not only government reforms to appease the Yellow Vest movement’s call for greater economic equality, but also to reform himself.
No more arrogance. More humanity. More understanding. More listening. Less dictating.
Temples graying for the first time, the still-youthful Mr. Macron, 41, showed clearly that he had been affected by the economic and social protests that tore up Paris and cities in the French provinces. Those protests are continuing, though far smaller and somewhat more violent than at the beginning.
Rubber bullets, truncheons and tear gas now greet the protesters, preferred by forces sent by Mr. Macron’s interior minister, who sat in the front row at the news conference. The president, for his part, offered a dose of humility Thursday night.
“One can always do better,” Mr. Macron told the journalists, whom he has kept at arm’s length, waiting until two years into his mandate to meet them. “I think I can do better, too.”
“We haven’t always put the human at the heart of our project,” the president added. “I’ve given off the feeling of always giving orders. Of being unfair.”
But a three-month listening and speaking tour of the French provinces as part of what his government called the Great Debate — its response to the Yellow Vests — had educated him about his own country, the president said. He often lapsed into the literary and philosophical style that he favors, but which commentators have noted detaches him from citizens.
“I’ve touched much more clearly on the density of lives,” Mr. Macron said. “I heard the anger. I felt it in my flesh.”
He vowed a “profound reorientation of the philosophy I believe in — more human, more humanist.”
The news conference and the speech preceding it had been scheduled for last week, but the fire at Notre-Dame cathedral forced Mr. Macron to change his plans.
Clearly mindful of the simmering anger that persists — Mr. Macron has clawed his way back to roughly pre-protest popularity levels, but his ranking is still low — the agenda the French president revealed Thursday night had a populist bent.
“There are too many people in Paris making decisions,” he said, calling for a “profound reorganization of our government so that more decisions are made in the regions.”
He promised to lower taxes by about $5.5 billion, put a stop to the vastly unpopular closing of rural schools and hospitals, peg pensions of less than $2,200 per month to inflation, and abolish one of the dominating institutions in French public life, ENA, or the National School for Administration, from which he and much of the government hierarchy have graduated.
Known for producing brilliant technocrats and gifted civil servants, ENA is also considered a bastion of elitist privilege because so many of its students come from well-to-do backgrounds. Mr. Macron’s idea, leaked to the press a week ago, has been sharply criticized by graduates who have suggested instead an opening-up of the admissions process.
But Mr. Macron was adamant, depicting the abolition of ENA as a necessary step toward greater egalitarianism, a powerful trope in French life. “I don’t believe in just tinkering,” Mr. Macron said.
Still, much of the old Macron was in evidence Thursday night, particularly in his exhortation to French men and women to work more, comparing France unfavorably to its neighbors in that respect. “The difference in the creation of wealth is tied to the fact that we work less,” he said. “We need to work more.”
But he vowed not to interfere with the 35-hour workweek, which has become an icon in French working life. He pointed out that it is now susceptible to renegotiation at the level of individual industrial facilities — a compromise that appears to have quenched suggestions he made as economy minister in the previous government to abolish it.
The political opposition immediately pounced on Mr. Macron for offering too little, too late in the face of the protest movement that has shaken France.
“Quite frankly, I’m afraid that the anger of the French is not going to go away anytime soon,” said Jordan Bardella, a leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, formerly the National Front, on BFMTV. The party is running neck-and-neck with Mr. Macron’s LREM party in polling for next month’s European parliamentary elections, seen as a referendum on the president’s pro-Europe stance.
Asked repeatedly about the anger that was directed at him during the protests, Mr. Macron replied soberly. “I certainly contributed to it,” he said.
“This period has changed me,” he said. “It’s increased the feeling of responsibility that I have. Our democracy has been called into question.”
Orignially published in NYT.