Emmanuel Macron’s first TV interview shows why he avoided it for so long

The French president has learned that speaking to the media is necessary – now he must become better at it.

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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? After swearing off TV interviews when he assumed office last May, Emmanuel Macron answered questions from journalists on TV for the first time on Sunday night, in an attempt to account for his missteps and explain the reforms ahead.

The TV channel treated it as a VERY BIG DEAL:

The French president declined to do the traditional presidential TV address on Bastille Day, but was forced to change his mind after a summer of rookie mistakes and rocky communication – so this first major TV appearance, like other interviews he has given since September to readjust his relationship with the media, felt like backtracking.

And yet he failed to properly apologise for his recent gaffes. He has called those protesting his labour market reform “cynics” and “slackers” and demanding them not to “foutre le bordel” (“make a bloody mess”), remarks seen as insulting and divisive. Macron, though, contested this by arguing he was simply using “normal” and “familiar” expressions. “I have always tried to speak close to the truth. I will keep telling things as they are and [will] sometimes lose my temper,” he said. “I did not mean to humiliate”.

Macron repeated that he is “president for all the French people”, in an attempt to stem a widespread criticism that he is “president for the rich”. He has earned this nickname because of his constant praising of entrepreneurs, his wish to make France “a start-up nation” and a recent fiscal reform that will favour the highest earners and cut the “fortune tax,” a tax on incomes over €1m. 

“I don’t like this opposition in society,” he said, and pointed out to the three journalists present that statistically, they were considered rich. They responded that so, too, was he. “So what?” he replied. “For society to be better, we need people who succeed.” He claimed that “jealousy [toward successful people] is one of France’s sad passions”. He later praised “leaders” who could bring the French economy forward – and didn’t use the word “rich” once.

Prone to long answers to develop his “complex thought” and quick to interrupt journalists, Macron was almost the sole speaker in this first TV appearance. Indeed, it was more of a speech than an interview. The president has learnt that not speaking publicly leads to endless commentary on the tiniest of quotes. He used the hour-long exercise to announce the way ahead, explaining the next reforms (on apprenticeships and the unemployment system) in some detail.

But unless you’re fond of hearing forgotten French words on prime time TV (last night’s vocabulary bingo was “croquignolesque” which, aptly enough, means “ridiculous”), the whole thing was dull and not newsworthy. Macron was there, true to himself, and that was new enough.

With Marine Le Pen prepping for her own TV interview next Thursday, hoping to take the opposition seat back from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Macron’s “complex thought” and flowery language may become French TV’s new normal. What a difference a few months make.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.