PARIS (Reuters) - Never let it be said that President Emmanuel Macron doesn’t care about how he comes across.
For the first television interview of his five-month-old presidency, an hour-long appearance on France’s TF1 during Sunday primetime, everything on screen seemed scrupulously chosen to highlight elements of the 39-year-old’s education, world view and ambitions for France.
Seated at a marble-topped designer table, three interviewers on the other side, Macron had on the wall over his shoulder a large modernist painting with the words “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” - the national motto - arranged around the French flag and an image of Marianne, the national symbol.
While the interview took place in the gilded, classical Elysee Palace, home to French presidents since 1848, Macron and his wife Brigitte have updated many of the rooms with contemporary art, designer rugs and angular metal furniture.
On his office desk, from where one of several cameras provided a wide-angle of the scene, the titles of books Macron is supposedly reading were on show.
Alongside a tome on India, there was one entitled “Le Genie Allemand” (The genius of the Germans), another by former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta about building Europe in a harsh world, and another by an economist called “Towards the World of 2050”.
Others touched on literature, culture and financial regulation, sending subtle and not-so-subtle messages to European leaders and French citizens alike. A paperweight in the colours of the French flag weighed down one pile.
Since taking office in May, the former investment banker and civil servant has been meticulous in managing his image, talking about the need to ensure the presidency is elevated, dealing solemnly with the weightiest issues of the day.
At the same time, he has insisted that he is not a “president of the rich” — as critics have labelled him — but in touch with ordinary citizens via frequent visits to factories, businesses, fairs and markets.
The obsessiveness about how he comes across has also tripped him up. He was ridiculed for dressing up in an olive flight suit to address the military, and three months into his presidency, French media reported he had already spent 26,000 euros ($30,700)on makeup.
And an opinion poll after the interview showed many people were not convinced by his message on social issues.
French journalists have expressed frustration that he does not make himself more available for interviews or at press conferences, something his predecessor Francois Hollande did all too regularly, sometimes responding to text messages.
Instead those around Macron describe the need to be “Jupiterian” — taking big decisions from on high — rather than getting caught in the melee of daily journalism.
During Sunday’s interview, Macron rejected criticism that he had been dismissive towards unionists, saying his use of words like “slackers” and the phrase “kicking up a bloody mess” to describe protesters were him “telling it straight”.
“We’re taking care of the parts of France where things aren’t going so well,” he said. “I’m doing what I said I would do during the election campaign.”
Throughout the interview Macron was polite but combative, unwilling to cede the word to his questioners and at times turning the event into a lengthy policy presentation. He talked repeatedly of long-term vision rather than quick results. Some reviewers criticised the failure to elicit news.
Macron’s concern for image was evident immediately after his election victory - that evening he crossed the courtyard of the Louvre to the strains of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, the official anthem of the European Union. A fly-on-the-wall documentary released the next day told the inside story of his campaign, largely painting the thrusting president in a positive light.
But whether his approach can win over more of the public than the 24 percent who voted for him in the first round of the election is questionable.
While 9.7 million people tuned in to watch on Sunday, a poll by Harris Interactive showed 61 percent “were not convinced” by what he said, especially on social issues.
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Writing by Luke Baker; Additional reporting by Richard Lough; Editing by Richard Balmforth