PARIS — France persuaded President Donald Trump to stay in Syria and launch airstrikes as punishment for an alleged chemical-weapons attack, French President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday.
Appearing live on French television BFM and online investigative site Mediapart nearly a year into his term, the 40-year-old leader said the U.S., Britain and France had "full international legitimacy to intervene" with the strikes, to enforce international humanitarian law.
The allies fired missiles early Saturday at three chemical-weapons facilities in Syria to punish the regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons in the town of Douma.
"It was retaliation, not an act of war," Macron said in justifying the operation a day before the French parliament was set to debate it. The airstrikes marked Macron's biggest foreign policy challenge yet. The new president declared France the most active country in the diplomatic arena and at the United Nations.
"Ten days ago President Trump wanted the United States of America to withdraw from Syria. We convinced him to remain," he said, speaking in the majestic room of Chaillot National Theater, with the Eiffel Tower shining in the background.
He said France now wants to involve Western powers, Russia and Turkey in a new diplomatic initiative to find a sustainable political solution in Syria.
Macron also offered to play the role of intermediary between the United States and Russia, whose relationship has been on edge over the chemical-weapons attack and amid allegations that Russia tried to interfere in the U.S. 2016 presidential election.
The French leader will make a state visit to the U.S. next week and is scheduled to travel to Russia next month.
During an interview that lasted two hours and 40 minutes Sunday, Macron remained firm on his domestic reform agenda, which he said fulfills his electoral promises. He defended his strategy to inject vitality into the economy by trimming guarantees for workers — despite simmering anger over his labor law changes — and cutting taxes for businesses and the rich.
Macron says his policies are aimed at making the country more competitive globally, and the society more "flexible." Workers fear losing hard-won job protections.
"I want us to succeed in the economic field in order to be able to run real social policies," he said.
This spring, Macron's government began implementing plans to tax retirees more and employees less, cut jobs in some hospitals, reorganize the justice system, and apply a new university admissions system, all of which prompted protests.
The centrist, pro-free-market leader, often portrayed by critics as the "president of the rich," insisted his economic policies are designed to improve conditions for middle-class workers.
"There are people who work hard and who don't make enough money," he said, adding that some tax cuts will help increase wages.
Since last year, the unemployment rate has slightly decreased from 10 percent to 8.9 percent. The government's growth-rate forecast for 2018 is 2 percent of gross domestic product, the best in seven years, and the country's budget deficit has stayed within the European Union's established parameters for the first time in a decade.
Meanwhile, rail workers have launched on-and-off strikes over a railway labor-reform plan, disrupting traffic nationwide.
The president tried to appease them Sunday with an announcement that the government will take over part of the multibillion-dollar debt of France's national SNCF rail company, starting in 2020.
Macron also guaranteed the company will not be privatized. He did, however, confirm his plans to revoke a special status that allows rail drivers to retain jobs and other benefits for life.
On Saturday, 63 people were arrested and nine police officers injured during protests in the cities of Nantes and Montpellier. Other marches across France were largely peaceful.
Associated Press writer Philippe Sotto contributed to this report.