Macron takes office, vows to heal divisions

Newly inaugurated French President Emmanuel Macron meets supporters in Paris.
VIDEO: REUTERS
French President Emmanuel Macron, 39, and his wife, Ms Brigitte Trogneux, 64, on the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris yesterday after the inauguration ceremony. The centrist newcomer stands outside any traditional political grouping and is a Europ
French President Emmanuel Macron, 39, and his wife, Ms Brigitte Trogneux, 64, on the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris yesterday after the inauguration ceremony. The centrist newcomer stands outside any traditional political grouping and is a European integrationist, unlike defeated National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.PHOTO: REUTERS

France's youngest post-war president pledges to defend interests of country and work to reconcile the people

PARIS • Mr Emmanuel Macron yesterday took power as President of France in a solemn ceremony heavy with tradition at the Elysee Palace, and he pledged to work to heal divisions in society - a nod to the bitter campaign he had fought to defeat a far-right leader.

His inauguration marked a first for the world's fifth-largest economy and a founding member of the European Union - installing a 39-year-old centrist newcomer unknown to the wider public three years ago and who stands outside any traditional political grouping.

The former investment banker is the youngest post-war French leader and the first to be born after 1958, when former president Charles de Gaulle put in place the country's Fifth Republic.

In his first word in office, he addressed the fraught and fiercely contested election campaign in which he overcame National Front candidate Marine Le Pen but which was a disappointment for almost half of France's 47 million voters.

Many people feel left behind by globalisation as manufacturing jobs move abroad and as immigration and a fast-changing world blur their sense of a French identity.

 
  • FIVE CHALLENGES FOR FRANCE'S NEW PRESIDENT

  • 1 UNITE FRANCE

    France is deeply divided: one urban, more affluent and open to reform; the other in the northern rust belt and rural areas that backed Mr Emmanuel Macron's far-right opponent, Ms Marine Le Pen, or other anti-globalisation candidates.

    Mr Macron, a pro-European centrist and former banker, knows that many who backed him see him as "the lesser of two evils" and do not support his liberal, pro-business agenda. Failure to create jobs could further alienate those who feel neglected by the political class.

    2 SECURE A MAJORITY

    Mr Macron says his year-old Republique en Marche movement and government will be open to progressives of all stripes. He aims to seal his presidential win with an outright majority in the June 11-18 parliamentary election but his fledgling party faces a tough task. Half of the 428 parliamentary candidates it has chosen so far have never held elected office.

    The right-wing Republicans, whose candidate Francois Fillon crashed out in the first round of the presidential election after allegations he had embezzled state funds, hope to strike back and force Mr Macron into a coalition. The radical left of firebrand leader Jean-Luc Melenchon is also aiming for a strong showing.

    3 REFORM THE LABOUR MARKET

    Like his Socialist predecessor, Mr Francois Hollande, Mr Macron will be judged above all on employment. French joblessness stands at 10 per cent, compared with an average of 8 per cent across the European Union and 3.9 per cent in Germany. Mr Macron vowed during campaigning to use executive orders to force through reforms of France's rigid labour laws in order to encourage employers to hire. But by bypassing Parliament, he risks being drawn into a showdown with combative trade unions and triggering mass protests of the kind that undermined Mr Hollande.

    4 MANAGE TERROR THREAT

    The killing of a policeman in Paris just three days before the first round of the presidential vote was a sobering reminder of the terror threat hanging over France.

    More than 230 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in France since January 2015, many carried out in the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group. Security experts have warned of the particular threat posed by hundreds of French ISIS fighters returning home from Syria and Iraq in the coming years. With no previous experience in such matters, Mr Macron has to move quickly to show he has a grip on the security challenges and his role as military commander-in-chief.

    5 DRIVE EUROPEAN UNION REFORM

    Mr Macron sees a reinvigoration of the France-Germany alliance as crucial to relaunching the EU after the shocks of Brexit and the migrant crisis. His first trip abroad will take him to Berlin today to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He also plans to visit other European capitals during his first months in charge, to set out his five-year roadmap for closer euro-zone integration and tackling issues such as the environment and migration.

"The division and fractures in our society must be overcome. I know that the French expect much from me. Nothing will make me stop defending the higher interests of France and working to reconcile the French," Mr Macron declared.

A convinced European integrationist, unlike Ms Le Pen and other candidates, Mr Macron went on: "The world and Europe need more than ever France, and a strong France, which speaks out loudly for freedom and solidarity."

He also suggested that he would press on with his ambitious but controversial agenda to reform France's rigid labour market and modernise the social security system, despite the fierce resistance he is likely to meet.

The timing of France's youthful new leader is good - the economy, in the doldrums for years, is beginning to show signs of recovery.

Mr Macron took power formally after an hour-long private meeting with outgoing President Francois Hollande, in which official access to France's nuclear missile launch codes was handed over.

In a ceremony conducted with all the pomp and glitter of high state occasions in France, Mr Macron was presented with what is effectively his chain of office - a heavy golden necklace mounted on a red cushion that makes him Grand Master of the National Order of the Legion d'Honneur - an honours system for servants of the republic.

But he also appeared determined to create an impression of personal modesty at the start. Aides went out of their way to emphasise that the dark suit he wore to stride up the red carpet to power cost just €450 (S$690). The Louis Vuitton lavender blue dress worn by his wife, Brigitte, 64, was on loan from the fashion house, journalists were told. Their three children were also present.

He displayed youthful vigour during the televised proceedings, at one point racing up the stairs to meet a protocol requirement, something not all previous French presidents might have managed.

Departing from past tradition, he chose to be driven by military jeep rather than limousine to the Arc de Triomphe in driving rain to light a flame in tribute to France's war dead, a potent reminder of France's role in the Nato defence alliance.

Mr Macron also showed determination in the fight against terrorism since the Arc is not far from where a policeman was shot dead by a gunman acting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, shortly before the May 7 second round of the election.

Security was tight around Paris yesterday, with around 1,500 police officers deployed near the presidential palace and on the famed Champs Elysees, and surrounding roads were blocked off.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WATCH VIDEO ONLINE

Emmanuel Macron and his family members arriving at Elysee Palace in Paris for his inauguration. http://str.sg/46Xv

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2017, with the headline 'Macron takes office, vows to heal divisions'. Print Edition | Subscribe