French President Emmanuel Macron declared his future “ambitions” for the country but declined to formally declare he was running for a second term in a lengthy prime-time TV interview on Wednesday that saw him defend his record as an economic reformer.
After a rare two-hour press conference last week to outline his European ambitions, the 43-year-old head of state sat down with journalists from the TF1 channel as campaigning ahead of next April’s vote hots up.
“If your question is ‘are you looking ahead?’,’do you have ambitions for our country, for French people beyond next April?’. Clearly,” the centrist replied when asked if he would be running for another five-year term.
“I never thought that we could do everything in five years,” he said during the interview which was pre-recorded but broadcast on Wednesday evening.
But he argued he needed to stay focused on governing before giving a “firm and sincere response” about his candidacy to the country.
As well as his recent media work, the country’s youngest-ever president when elected in 2017 has also been touring small-town and rural France in recent weeks in what has resembled grassroots campaigning.
Like his predecessors including Francois Mitterrand and Nicolas Sarkozy, observers say he appears intent on playing for time, using the presidential megaphone and the benefits of his office until as late as possible.
“I’ll keep going until the final quarter of an hour,” he said.
France’s role holding the rotating presidency of the European Union from January 1, which will see Macron set the official EU agenda, is also seen as another factor favouring a late declaration.
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Recent gains in the polls from some of his opponents next year might also explain his sudden willingness to open up to the media after years of keeping journalists at arm’s length.
On Friday, RTL radio is set to broadcast a special event in which he answers questions from school children.
Last week, a poll by the Elabe survey group showed the former investment banker losing the second round of the election on April 24 for the first time to right-winger Valerie Pecresse from the Republicans party.
Pecresse, the combative head of the greater Paris region and a former minister under Sarkozy, has enjoyed a huge bounce in the polls since clinching her party’s nomination on December 4.
She led criticism about Wednesday night’s TV interview which she said was evidence of an uneven playing field for those eyeing the Elysee Palace.
“We can’t have a president-candidate who has television channels open up for him whenever he wants it and is campaigning for hours on end, while his opponents get five minutes on a panel to respond to him,” she said on Monday.
She has promised to complain to France’s media regulator, the CSA, which monitors the time given to presidential candidates to ensure each of them gets a fair billing.
Macron was asked repeatedly about mistakes early in his campaign when he was accused of talking down to voters, one of the factors behind a huge backlash from anti-government protesters known as “yellow vests”.
“I’ve learned to have a lot more respect for everyone, I think I can say,” Macron said, admitting that his “desire to shake things up” had sometimes been counter-productive.
“With some of my words I hurt people,” he said.
Socialist party politician Boris Vallaud decried the interview as a “like a public confession without a single new idea.”
Macron defended his reforms to labour laws, making it easier for companies to fire workers, as well as tax cuts which he said had made the country able to confront the Covid-19 crisis in a stronger position.
Unemployment in France fell to 8.1 percent in the last quarter, down from 9.5 percent when Macron was elected, but remains above the average of the other countries that use the euro.
He also implied that major pension reform, which he abandoned when the Covid-19 pandemic began, would be part of his programme for a second term.
He admitted that his initial ideas were too “anxiety-inducing” and needed to be reformulated, but the objective would remain the same.
“We need to be prepared for the idea of having to work for longer,” he said.