FILE - In this Friday, July 20, 2018 file photo, French President Emmanuel Macron looks after meeting President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev at the presidential Elysee Palace, in Paris, France. French President Emmanuel Macron is back from vacation and plans to launch a new push for economic changes as he faces growing criticism at home. The 40-year-old leader holds a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, Aug. 22 at the Elysee presidential palace. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, file)

French president pushes for new changes as criticism grows

August 22, 2018 - 2:15 am

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron is back from summer vacation and he plans to launch a new push for economic changes as he faces growing criticism at home.

The 40-year-old leader holds a Cabinet meeting Wednesday at the Elysee presidential palace.

Macron hopes his break will help give his policies new impetus after a nightmare political scenario in July. His government survived two no-confidence votes last month following a scandal over a top Macron security aide, Alexandre Benalla, identified in a video as acting violently toward a protester while wearing police equipment.

While the centrist leader promised transparency and an exemplary government before his election, the scandal has raised questions about his team's working methods and actions.

Benalla, who initially stayed in his job before a public uproar led to his dismissal, has since faced initial charges, including committing violent acts and impersonating a police officer.

The latest public opinion polls at the end of July have seen Macron's popularity rate at its lowest level since he was elected in May 2017.

Opponents commonly describe Macron as "Jupiter," the Roman king of gods, or "Napoleon" —in a reference to his authoritarian style and tendency to use special powers to pass some key measures without a parliamentary debate. In addition, critics often portray him as the "president of the rich," for tax cuts for the wealthy.

Similar comments have been recently revived by his request to build a 34,000-euro ($39,200) swimming pool in the presidential summer residence on the French Riviera.

The French leader took 15 days of vacation, reading books and enjoying the view of turquoise waters. He made only a few public appearances.

He invited British Prime Minister Theresa May for dinner, with Brexit discussions on the agenda. He also had phone calls with several world leaders, including President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

An official at the French presidency said Macron's international agenda in the coming weeks will focus on showing a united European front in Brexit negotiations.

Macron seeks to strengthen ties between pro-European governments, seen as opposed to rising populism in the European Union. He's notably planning to visit Denmark and Finland at the end of the month and meet with Merkel in early September. The official spoke on customary condition of anonymity.

Macron is likely to face a tough task in domestic politics. The government is preparing the country's budget for next year as the economic growth forecast is lower than previously expected at an estimated 1.8 percent, compared with 2.2 percent last year.

Macron is planning to focus on pursuing further labor changes with a bill focusing on helping small businesses to grow by removing some financial and bureaucratic barriers.

Over the past year, the government struggled to pass labor measures and a plan to revamp national railway company SNCF.

The changes have been rejected by unions as weakening workers' hard-won protections, prompting big protests last autumn and spring, and months-long rolling strikes from railway workers.

The government will also detail next month a sweeping overhaul of the costly health care system, including hospital financing. The plan will be closely monitored as the French are attached to preserving the system, widely considered one of the best in the world.

Meanwhile, key constitutional changes were delayed because the Benalla scandal interrupted the debate at parliament in July. The changes were aimed at fulfilling some of Macron's campaign promises like decreasing the number of lawmakers and accelerating the process to make laws. The government hopes to be able to revive the plan this autumn.

In addition, Macron wants to reorganize the structure of the Elysee Palace and its 820 workers, especially in the fields of security, communication, transportation and logistics. The changes may be sensitive since they would challenge decades-old traditions and ways of working.

Macron's office stresses that it needs to be modernized to be more reactive and efficient. For example, the military command unit ensuring security inside the Elysee is also in charge of mundane tasks like printing invitation cards, while Macron's highly trained bodyguards are also responsible for carrying the luggage of the president's aides during official trips.

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