PARIS (AFP) – French President Emmanuel Macron showed no regret on Friday after being caught on camera disparaging a group of trade union protesters, instead urging the media to focus on the “real” issues faced by the country.
The 39-year-old former investment banker has been criticised after being overheard telling a local official during a visit to central France on Wednesday that protesters outside the venue “instead of stirring up shit, would be better off looking for work.”
Pressed on the issue Friday, Macron said the intense media coverage of his remark had detracted from the real purpose of the visit, which was to promote professional training.
“I must say that more was said about the peripheral issues… than the essentials, which is what was announced by the work and education ministers, which is fundamental,” he said.
“If people are interested in the life of the country, they should discuss what we talked about here at this round table,” he said after a question-and-answer session with builders in Paris.
“We’ve spoken about the real problems faced by real people and real ideas to really protect them,” he added.
Macron’s trip to the rural Correze region was overshadowed by his comments about the protesters defending a struggling local auto parts plant, which were picked up on the microphone of a television crew.
Having heard that a foundry 140 kilometres (85 miles) from the auto plant was looking for employees, he argued in unusually vulgar language for a president that workers should go there to look for work.
A member of his team told AFP afterwards that Macron was “standing by the substance” of his remarks but that he would have chosen his words differently if speaking in a more formal context.
A poll released Friday by Harris Interactive showed that 57 percent of respondents were “shocked” by his language, while 71 percent said that such outbursts harmed his ability to push through his pro-business programme.
Macron has a history of making comments seen as condescending towards ordinary people or critics, which has contributed to a steep drop in popularity for the centrist since his election in May.
The left-leaning Liberation newspaper called him “Sarkozy’s Long-Lost Son” in a front-page headline on Friday, referring to the provocative style of former rightwing president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy left office as France’s most unpopular president in modern history, only to see his record beaten by his Socialist successor Francois Hollande when he stepped down at the end of his term.