Lawyers and magistrates hold a placard with a portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron during a demonstration as part of a nation wide day of protest against a government draft law on Justice, in Paris, Wednesday April 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Facing strikes, France's Macron defends economic vision

April 12, 2018 - 5:38 am

PARIS (AP) — Train workers, hospitals staff, students, retirees, lawyers and magistrates: they are all protesting the way President Emmanuel Macron's government is changing France.

Macron is appearing on national television Thursday to respond to the daily concerns of the French and defend his economic policies and tax changes, which he says are aimed at modernizing the country.

In what some portray as a fight for the identity of France, Macron wants to reduce the role of the state and inject vitality in the economy by trimming guarantees for workers and increasing competition among companies, among other things. His critics say he is favoring the rich and eroding workers' hard-won labor rights with moves that risk increasing wealth disparity in a country whose national motto includes the word "equality."

The government's strategy is to go fast and hope protest actions lose momentum.

Last year, despite protests, the government used a special, accelerated procedure to push a labor bill through parliament. The law is perceived by many as weakening France's famed worker protections.

This spring, the government pushed farther, initiating a series of changes to tax retirees more and employees less, cut jobs in some hospitals, reorganize the justice system and apply a new university admissions system — all prompting protests.

But Macron's biggest challenge as president so far is from unions resisting a bill aimed at preparing the national railway company SNCF to open up to competition.

It has prompted nationwide strikes that have massively disrupted train traffic, and unions plan periodic rolling strikes through June. Legislators begin debating the bill this week.

Polls show the majority of the French approve the changes to rail service, but a growing minority supports the strikes. At the same time, surveys suggest the French want the government to avoid prolonged strikes, even if it means making concessions.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said arrangements can be made but the purposes of the bill cannot change.

"I get messages of support for the government from the French people; we have to stick with it to the end," he told Le Parisien newspaper Sunday.

Junior minister for Parliamentary relations Christophe Castaner on Wednesday lamented past failures by French governments to carry through on promised reforms, often in the face of protests. He argued the government draws its legitimacy from Macron's election on a reform agenda last year.

The strikes and protests echo 1995, when massive general strikes in the public and private sectors forced President Jacques Chirac's government to abandon its economic reform agenda.

This week, protesting students are occupying and partially blocking several public universities. They fear that a bill to reorganize university admissions will threaten the current system, under which all high school graduates have free access to public universities.

The Elysee Palace so far considers the protest movement as relatively limited compared with the 1.6 million students enrolled in French universities.

But Macron is worried enough to schedule two unusually long television interviews to explain his position. After his one-hour appearance Thursday, he will spend two hours answering questions Sunday from BFM television and online investigative site Mediapart.

The current protests come as France prepares to mark 50 years since May 1968, a pivotal moment when occupations in universities, confrontations between police and students and other strikes and protests paralyzed France's economy. The period is considered a cultural, social and moral turning point toward a more modern country.

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