After claims by François Hollande's referred to the poor as "toothless", his government was under fresh attack after the Economy Minister said women workers at a bankrupt abattoir were illiterate.
"In this company (Gad) there is a majority of women," Emmanuel Macron told Europe 1 radio. "Many of them are illiterate. Many of them have been told: 'You have no future in Gad or nearby. You need to go and work 50 or 60 kilometres away. These people have no driving licences. What can one say to them?"
The 36-year-old former Rothschild banker, appointed just last month, was beset by angry attacks from the left and right.
A union leader from Force Ouvrière, Jean Marc Detivelle, said: "It's clear contempt" for workers.
While National Assembly member Marc Le Fur, from the centre-right UMP party, called on the prime minister to send "Mr. Macron back to Rothschild."
SEE ALSO: Hollande hits back over 'toothless' jibe
Macron was forced to issue a grovelling recantation later on Wednesday, saying: "My humblest apologies go to the workers who I may have hurt with this comment for which I can never apologise enough."
According to estimates from the anti-illiteracy group Agence Nationale de Lutte Contre l’Illettrisme, seven percent of the French people read so poorly they are effectively illiterate.
Macron's remark came as part of his first major interview since taking up his job after Hollande sacked his predecessor, the maverick left-wing dissident Arnaud Montebourg.
It rapidly generated headlines on all French news sites and made #Macron a top trending term on Twitter, where he was widely mocked.
"At least Montebourg pretended to like worker," said tweeter Philippe Vardon.
— Philippe Vardon (@P_Vardon) September 17, 2014
The youthful minister made the comment in a clumsy attempt to demonstrate that France needs to overhaul its lengthy system of allocating driving licences, which it is currently trying to reform despite fierce opposition from driving schools.
He also said in the interview that France was "sick" and desperately needed pro-business reforms to recover from stagnation and "mass unemployment".
Macron's blunder came just weeks after Hollande came under fire for allegedly referring in private to the poor as "toothless". That accusation came in a kiss-and-tell book by France’s ex-first lady Valérie Trierweiler.
The claim infuriated the deeply unpopular president, who said in response that his commitment to people on the the lowest levels of society was his "reason for being".
But he failed to specifically deny that he had ever used the word "toothless" when speaking of the poor.
By : Rory Mulholland