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article imageMacron to lay out next phase of reforms as criticism mounts

By Laurence Benhamou and Isabelle Cortes (AFP)     Jul 8, 2018 in Politics

President Emmanuel Macron will gather both houses of parliament at the opulent Versailles Palace on Monday for what has become an annual address on his plans for overhauling wide swathes of French society and institutions.

His office has given little indication of the issues Macron will cover during his hour-long speech, which comes as his ratings continue to tumble.

This week, lawmakers will begin debating his call for constitutional changes aimed at streamlining the legislative process, including shrinking the number of seats in the National Assembly and the Senate by a third.

He has already pushed through corporate tax cuts, eased labour laws, reformed the university entrance system and revamped state rail operator SNCF despite stiff union resistance.

But a growing number of critics, including some in his own centrist Republic on the Move party (LREM), accuse the former investment banker of neglecting the concerns of voters on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

Recent comments that France spends "a crazy amount of dough" on social security programmes did little to soften his image as the "president of the rich", as he is called by opponents.

Macron's regal, top-down style has also raised hackles, with some MPs on both the left and right boycotting his Versailles speech as the latest sign of a "monarchical" drift.

They cite in particular his threat to override resistance to his parliamentary overhaul by calling a referendum "if necessary".

"The president is reducing parliament to a simple spectator," Marie-Noelle Lienemann, the Senate's Socialist vice-president, posted on Twitter, announcing she would join a boycott of the speech.

The leftwing France Unbowed party, which is also snubbing the event, said they would organise a protest on social media.

"Tomorrow we're going to get a long speech on 'my life, my work' that will be all about him," Christian Jacob of the rightwing Republicans party complained on French television Sunday.

Macron has also taken heat over the cost of bussing out hundreds of lawmakers to France's former royal seat and deploying dozens of Republican Guards who will flank his ceremonial entry -- estimated at 300,000 euros ($350,000).

- Seeking balance -

The Versailles speech could be a chance for Macron to burnish his social justice bonafides in the face of wavering poll numbers.

"I hope he's going to talk about poverty," said Senate president Gerard Larcher, referring to a plan which was supposed to be announced this month but has now been pushed back to September.

An Odoxa survey published Thursday found that just 29 percent of respondents thought Macron's policies "fair", and while 75 percent declared him "dynamic", only 45 percent considered him "likeable".

His speech also comes amid reports his government will announce thousands of job cuts in France's fiscal and customs administrations in the coming days, reviving fears over Macron's pledge to cut 120,000 public sector jobs.

"The president will lay out the principles of his action for the coming year and put them in perspective, but it's not a speech for going into the details of his announcements," a source in his office told AFP.

Macron has vowed to slash state spending, among the highest among wealthy countries relative to its economy, in order to balance the French budget for the first time in over 40 years.

He has said he wants to make social benefits more effective in terms of getting recipients out of poverty.

Yet the president himself has given fodder to critics after recent reports that he and his wife Brigitte had ordered a lavish new set of porcelain tableware for the Elysee Palace worth some 500,000 euros.

"A shift is expected from policies based solely on accounting and budget logic," LREM lawmaker Frederic Barbier wrote in Le Monde daily on Saturday.

"Even if we see some social advances, the balance still hasn't been found," he said.

Macron is only the third French president to address lawmakers at Versailles in recent memory, and the first to do so twice, following Francois Hollande after the Paris terror attacks of November 2015, and Nicolas Sarkozy in June 2009 after the global financial crisis erupted.

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