By SYLVIE CORBET
PARIS (AP) — In just one year as France’s president, Emmanuel Macron has emerged as a key world player, speaking up for Europe and Western democratic values and striking a surprise friendship with Donald Trump. But Macron has made his biggest impact — and his biggest enemies — at home.
Strikes and protests over his economic reforms have dominated the French landscape in recent weeks, and tens of thousands held a “party” Saturday to share their anger at Macron’s first year in office. Many fear he is trading the French way of life for a profit-focused, American-style worldview.
Both critics and fans agree that Macron’s France has a different feel from the country that handed him the presidency on May 7, 2017. Then a 39-year-old newcomer to politics, Macron helped stem a global tide of populism by beating anti-immigrant, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen with his strong pro-European, pro-free market convictions.
Macron wasted no time in pushing through changes to France’s strict labor rules and raising the country’s international profile. He has emerged as Europe’s leading spokesman — and was the first world leader to be hosted at a state dinner in Washington by Trump last month.
In a speech to the U.S. Congress, Macron laid out a firm vision of global leadership, carrying the torch for a rules-based international system of freedoms, free markets and democratic governance that Western nations have championed since World War II.
“We can choose isolationism, withdrawal and nationalism,” Macron said. “But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world. It will not douse but inflame the fears of our citizens.”
Last month, the former investment banker showed his ability to make tough military decisions —launching airstrikes at chemical facilities in Syria in coordination with the U.S and Britain.
On Twitter, he won fans around the world with his environmental call to “make our planet great again” in response to Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris climate agreement.
Macron has carefully cultivated his image of world leader with democrats and autocrats alike — hugging German Chancellor Angela Merkel, posing with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and welcoming Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Versailles Chateau.
At home, things have been more complicated.
Opponents see him as authoritarian, a self-styled emperor like Napoleon or Jupiter, the Roman king of the gods. Critics on the left portray him as the “president of the rich” for tax cuts for the wealthy.
“The government has hit hard … (and) antagonizes a lot of people — except in the world of the rich,” said rail worker Christophe Moreau, demonstrating last week against labor changes to the national rail authority SNCF.
This spring, Macron’s government began implementing plans to tax retirees more, apply a new university admissions system and toughen some immigration rules — all of which prompted protests.
“One year after, the result is a lot of protests, a lot of strikes and people who think the government’s social policies aren’t good,” Philippe Martinez, head of one of France’s major unions, the CGT, told The Associated Press. “The president said we need changes, but we also need to take care of citizens.”
Macron says his economic reforms aim at attracting more French and foreign investors into the country and making sure the French economy is globally competitive after years of stagnation or recession.
Many economists say some of the changes that workers are protesting — like eliminating jobs for life in the French railway system or being allowed to reduce staff in a tough business environment — are the only way to make French companies viable in the 21st century, where businesses constantly send jobs across borders and automation is dramatically changing the workplace.
But opponents denounce the changes as weakening France’s often-envied worker protections.
Macron’s popularity dropped quickly last summer after he announced budget cuts and labor reforms. He later enjoyed a rebound — yet still fails to convince a majority of the French. Recent polls by Elabe, BVA, Ifop and Harris Interactive show between 39 and 49 percent of respondents have positive views on Macron’s presidency.
However, Macron has little to stop him from pressing on to transform France before the next presidential and legislative elections in 2022.
Macron can rely on his party’s large majority at the National Assembly to pass laws. Political opposition from both the right and the left has shrunk since his centrist Republic on the Move! split the formerly powerful Socialists and conservative Republicans.
His biggest labor reforms passed last year despite the demonstrations. And Europe’s robust economic growth of late is boosting the French government.
Since last year, France’s unemployment rate has decreased from 10 to 8.9 percent. Growth in 2018 is expected to reach 2 percent of gross domestic product — the best in seven years. And the French deficit is under the European Union’s 3 percent limit for the first time in a decade.
Macron marked his year in office with French television interviews in which he said he won’t cave in to the pressure of the street.
“I want us to succeed in the economic field in order to be able to run real social policies,” he said in response to fears that France is losing its generous welfare system.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe says Macron is doing what he was elected to do.
“In 2017, the French wanted a change … they gave the president and the government a clear majority to say: OK, you’ve been elected. You have plans, you must implement them. And that’s what we’re doing,” Philippe told Europe 1 radio.
Masha Macpherson in Paris contributed to the story.