PARIS (AP) -- French President Emmanuel Macron said he made France's economy stronger and sought to show he is not out-of-touch with ordinary people in a long interview Wednesday night on national television, which appears as a bid to boost his popularity ahead of April's presidential election.
Macron, who is expected to seek a second term, has yet to formally declare his candidacy. He is under criticism from rivals in the race who say he is already campaigning and is using his presidential status to do so.
"When I was elected, I loved France, and now I can tell you I love it even more madly. I love the French," Macron said. "These five years have been five years of joy, of hard work, but also of crisis, of periods of doubt."
The 43-year-old centrist president, elected in May 2017, answered at length journalists' questions in the sumptuous reception room of the Elysee presidential and its glass roof composed of panels of blue, white and red, an artwork by renowned French artist Daniel Buren. The pre-recorded interview was broadcast in prime time on national television channels TF1 and LCI.
"We made reforms ... to get a much stronger economy, which is the case of the French economy today, compared to five years ago," Macron said. "The result is here: We have the lowest unemployment rate in 15 years."
Macron listed changes his government made to boost job creations and cut taxes on businesses.
France's unemployment rate is at 8.1%, down from about 10% when he was elected, according to national statistics agency INSEE.
INSEE estimated the French economy would grow 6.7% this year, the highest rate since 1969.
Elected on a pro-business, pro-European platform, Macron has often been perceived as arrogant, out of touch and "president of the rich," especially during the yellow vest protest movement that emerged the next year, named after the vests French drivers must keep in their cars for emergencies.
The protests against a planned fuel tax hike quickly spread into a broader movement against economic injustice and the way Macron was running France. For months, weekly protests across the country often degenerated into scattered violence.
"My values are not those of a president of the rich," Macron said. "I'm in favor of a country that is economically strong, but I'm in favor of a fair country."
He expressed regrets about having hurt people's feelings with some comments, like when told a jobless man that he just had to "cross the street" to find work. Or when he suggested some French workers are "lazy."
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic led Macron to delay some economic changes, including a difficult overhauling of France's pension system that he had previously promised to push through.
"It taught me" about "vulnerability" and "humility," he said. "It made me feel more directly the unacceptable inequalities that exist" among French people, he said.
Asked whether he would run for a second term, Macron did not answer, saying that he would work "until the last quarter of hour" of his term. But he added: "We don't transform a country in five years. So I'll continue to look forward (to the future)."
Polls say Macron has regained some popularity since the yellow vest crisis and is now perceived as the front-runner in next year's presidential election.
Wednesday's interview came after Macron staged a two-hour news conference last week to unveil his priorities for Europe as France is about to take over the rotating presidency of the EU next month. The French president is spending Wednesday and Thursday in Brussels for European meetings.
Presidential contenders from the right and the left have criticized the media exposure the program gives to Macron as the race is underway for the April 10 presidential election.
Conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse, Green challenger Yannick Jadot and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon have called on the French media watchdog, the CSA, to ensure a fair repartition of the speaking time on television and radio for them.
Pécresse, whose interview on another channel was cancelled because of Macron's program, said "we can't have a president-candidate who has television channels open up for him whenever he wants it and is campaigning for hours on end, while his opponents get five minutes on a panel to respond to him."