VERSAILLES/PARIS • President Emmanuel Macron has sought to place France at the centre of a new age of enlightenment, using a major speech to call on parliamentarians to put aside their post-modern cynicism to revive the nation's creativity and offer leadership on the global stage.
Speaking to the combined Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament on Monday, the youngest French leader since Napoleon said it was time to take back the initiative at home and abroad to avert a slide towards fanaticism.
He is betting that an appeal to France's intellectual heritage will serve as a counterweight to the lure of Islamic fundamentalism, xenophobia or populism.
"Returning French intelligence to its proper place is to make our country the new centre of the humanist project in the world," Mr Macron told the special joint session of Parliament in the Palace of Versailles, attended by 925 lawmakers but boycotted by three parties.
Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox
"What we have to achieve is a veritable revolution. We're here, you and I, to change the order of things, to reignite French confidence".
His aides had said that, by bringing lawmakers to the 17th-century palace built outside Paris by Louis XIV - the "Sun King" - the President was seeking to restore old-fashioned grandeur to the role.
"Macron is the first head of state in a while to have a vision of the place of France in the world and in history," said Professor Thomas Guenole of the Sciences Po institute in Paris. "He belongs to the Enlightenment tradition."
Referendum an option if Parliament is slow
VERSAILLES/PARIS • Mr Emmanuel Macron has warned lawmakers that he would seek direct approval from voters in a referendum if Parliament failed to sign off his intended institutional reforms quickly enough.
Elected only two months ago, Mr Macron told both Houses of Parliament, summoned especially to the Palace of Versailles for a joint session, that he wanted to cut the number of lawmakers by a third, curb the executive's role in naming magistrates and introduce a "dose" of proportional representation.
Mr Macron's upstart Republic on the Move (LREM) party has secured a comfortable majority in the National Assembly - but he made clear his impatience to complete the reshaping of the political landscape that he has begun.
"The French people are not driven by patient curiosity, but by an uncompromising demand. It is a profound transformation that they expect," Mr Macron said.
"I want all these deep reforms that our institutions seriously need to be done within a year. These reforms will go to Parliament but, if necessary, I will put them to voters in a referendum."
Mr Macron also pressed his case for reform of Europe. An ardent advocate of deeper European Union integration who put reviving Europe's Franco-German axis and treaty reform at the centre of his presidential campaign, Mr Macron said excessive bureaucracy had fuelled euroscepticism among the public.
His opponents said his address was light on details.
"We're none the wiser coming out than we were going in,"said far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who Mr Macron defeated in the presidential run-off vote. "He speaks of a dose of proportional representation, but we don't know if he's talking about a small dose or a big dose."
The lofty sentiments also have a more pragmatic subtext, Prof Guenole argued. The 39-year-old President is taking every occasion to emphasise the gravitas of his role to distract from the weakness of his support - he won only 24 per cent of the electorate in the first round of the election.
Delivering the detail on the sweeping vision falls to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who was to give a more practical speech to the National Assembly yesterday.
At the top of the President's to-do list laid out during France's election campaign is a reform of labour market rules to make the economy more responsive to shocks and global competition. He has also promised changes to the tax system to help foment a more entrepreneurial culture while his plans to stabilise the public finances are already facing headwinds.
There is also the challenge of keeping France safe from terrorism and the unresolved issue of integrating immigrant communities living on the edge of society - while keeping working-class whites onside.
Even as he seeks to inspire his countrymen, Mr Macron is looking beyond France's borders to the challenges facing Europe. He sought to turn the page on years of financial fire-fighting and technocratic squabbles to revive the spirit of ambition in the European Union.
"The past decade has been a cruel one for Europe. We have managed the crisis but we have lost the plot," he said.
WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS