According to French broadcaster France 24, Macron’s 25 April press-conference on the Grand National Debate was forced upon him by circumstances. Originally, the plan had been for the French president to make his “big announcement” by way of a recording, to be broadcast on 15 April.

“But just two hours beforehand, Notre-Dame cathedral went up in flames, forcing the presidency to cancel the broadcast as Macron rushed out to the burning Paris landmark. A day later, the entire text of his reform plan speech was leaked to the media.”

France 24

In response, the Élysée decided that desperate times call for desperate measures and organised a press-conference. As France 24 puts it: “a first for a head of state who critics say has kept a near imperial distance from the media.” That is not all his critics say of him. They also call Macron ‘arrogant’ and heckle his “aloofness in the face of rising social problems.” It is doubtful whether it could have been different for the man who was more or less voted in on the strength of being the only alternative left to Le Pen in 2017. His popularity, according to the polls, dropped from over 60% to around, or even under, 30%.

Even more serious is the challenge posed by the gilets jaunes (yellow vests). In many, if not all, media, Macron’s 25 April speech is explicitly seen as an answer to the yellow vests, that have been taking to the streets since last October.

There are other threads of commonality in the media narratives. They all make mention of the fact that Macron proposes tax cuts, higher pensions, a reform of the civil services as well as certain political reforms in answer to the yellow vests. Less attention is paid to Macron’s remarks on the European Union, Schengen and immigration.

The BBC glosses over these topics in a sentence, The Guardian gives them some more attention, but doesn’t go into great detail either. Both allot more space to Macron’s plan to abolish, or reform, the École Nationale d’Administration than to Macron’s greater discussion of France and its woes.

This is short-changing Macron. The president opens his speech with a description of the yellow vests-movement that is probably fairer and more insightful than the usual analysis. Macron calls it

“an unprecedented movement (…) telling us of the anger, the anxiety, but also of the impatience the French people feel with things changing faster and more radical, that the French are told they can have their share of progress in an uncertain world, but where, it must be said, they have had the feeling rather of having to suffer setbacks year after year. (…) And I do not want the excesses of some to obscure the just claims brought up by this movement’s beginnings that are supported by many.”

Macron’s 25 April speech: official transcription (translated)

Macron believes that what France needs for an answer to these claims, is the reforms he has instituted. But he is willing to compromise even more than he has before, suggesting measures to alleviate grievances formulated by the yellow vests. He proposes income tax cuts (worth €5 billion), financed by spending cuts elsewhere, as well as closing company tax loopholes. Linkage of some pensions to inflation will be reintroduced, although this means people will have to pay into pensions for longer. Macron also says he expects the French to “work harder,” although there are no concrete plans on how to achieve this yet.

Apart from these economic measures, the French president proposes political reforms. These are said to take the form of a more decentralised government and an easier process by which to organise referendums. While criticising these political reforms, the BBC points out that this is good news for the far right, no explanation given.

In its analysis, the BBC further notes that Macron admits partial responsibility “for the breakdown of trust between governed and governing that led to the yellow vests.” Macron seems to want to try and save his program of economic reforms – which he deems absolutely necessary – by giving citizens more ways to let their voices be heard than protest alone.

The BBC’s analyst seems to miss this point, instead proposing that Macron is not aiming this message at them:

“the yellow vests are not Mr. Macron’s target audience. The target is France as a whole.”

BBC analysis

How the BBC can divorce a ‘France’ from a group it has itself described as a “movement – born online – that cuts across age, job and region, and includes members of the working and the middle classes, all affected by the higher cost of living” is unclear. Let them eat cake, and all that?

dOf the English-language publications, only Politico gives attention to a wider European streak in Macron’s speech, which French outlets do mention. According to Politico:

“Europe played a prominent role in his address. Macron seemed to punt the responsibility for tackling climate change over to the EU, proposing an EU carbon tax, a carbon floor price and ‘more ambitious green finance’ policy at the EU level.”

To their credit, they were also keen to notice that Macron called for an overhaul of the Schengen Agreement. However, in concentrating on how there were “striking similarities” between Macron’s remarks on migration and Islam and those of “hardline right-wing positions,” Politico doesn’t do full justice to what he actually said, which was:

“When we speak about secularism … we speak of people who in the name of a religion pursue a political project, that of a political Islam that wants to secede from our republic.”

And it is not often a European head of state says that “Schengen doesn’t function anymore” either.

The following is an approximate translation of the clip above:

“Finally, a nation also exists by virtue of its limits and borders. I believe very deeply in an open patriotism, in a France that is radiant internationally and conquering, but to be open, we have to have limits. To welcome people in a house, you need to have borders, and it is necessary they are respected, rules are needed. And today, one is forced to conclude that these things are not as they should be. First, on a European level, we have decided to have a common border, the famous Schengen Area, ruled by the Dublin Agreements. That doesn’t work anymore. And for me, that is the second big European fight, apart from the climate, which is the fight against migration. We have to fundamentally redefine our development and our migration policy. We believe that a strong sovereign Europe is a Europe that rethinks its ambition for developmental cooperation with Africa, and for that, it needs to also avoid emigration, but it is also a Europe that holds on to its borders, which protects them. It is a Europe that has a well-founded and common right to asylum, where responsibility goes hand in hand with solidarity. It is on these bases that we must reinvent Schengen, even if it is a Schengen Agreement between fewer states. I do not want a Schengen Agreement with states that are all for if it is about freedom of movement, but are all of a sudden against when it comes to distributing the load. No solidarity with me. What is this business? I don’t want an agreement with people that don’t want to hold on to a common border and are lax in this regard. This reinvention is indispensable.”

What exactly this means for the EU, is as yet unclear. But it seems that for Macron, the gloves are off.