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French President Emmanuel Macron is welcomed by Queen Margrethe of Denmark at the Amalienborg Castle in Copenhagen, Denmark, August 28, 2018. Ritzau Scanpix/Martin Sylvest via REUTERS

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HELSINKI (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron found himself having to defend his love of France and the French against critics at home on Thursday after suggesting during a visit to Denmark that his compatriots were slow to accept change.

Speaking to Denmark's Queen Margrethe during an audience in Copenhagen on Wednesday, Macron praised the Danes as a "Lutheran people" open to new ideas, while he described the French as "Gauls who are resistant to change".

The lightly delivered aside prompted a flood of criticism from domestic opponents.

"It is unacceptable to hear the president criticise and caricature the French like this," said Laurent Wauquiez, head of the centre-right Les Republicains party.

Marine Le Pen of the far-right said the comment showed Macron held the French in contempt and far-left deputy Alexis Corbiere called it "utter nonsense".

Macron, who has made reform a watchword of his presidency, defended himself, saying the comment was meant humorously and people shouldn't get swallowed up by social media outrage.

"I don't have the feeling it's a scoop that France was originally made up of Gallic tribes, which for me is something to be very proud of," he told a news conference in Helsinki, the final leg of a three-day visit to the Nordic region.

"I love France and the French and I love these Gallic tribes with all their variety and paradoxes... It's not contempt to say things as they are and to tell the truth."

Macron has faced frequent criticism for his sharp tongue and sometimes cutting wit.

Shortly after being elected in May last year, he berated a group of striking workers for "kicking up a bloody mess" and was roundly criticised for referring to "slackers".

He also upbraided a teenager for not addressing him politely and caused a diplomatic spat with the Italian government after accusing its leaders of cynicism.

Macron has introduced a raft of reforms, some of which have led to strikes and protests but without anything like the level of union resistance seen in previous eras.

"If I thought we were nothing but reactionaries, I wouldn't be here before you," he told reporters in Helsinki.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough; Writing by Luke Baker; editing by John Stonestreet)

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Reuters