Macron: France must face up to new economic challenges

Students protest outside the Saint-Charles University in Marseille, southern France, in a 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, Thursday April,12, 2018. Train workers, hospitals staff, students, retirees, lawyers and magistrates: they are all protesting the way President Emmanuel Macron's government is changing France. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)
French President Emmanuel Macron, right, sits by French journalist Fabien Namias in a classroom in Berd'huis, south of Paris, Thursday, April 12, 2018. 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. (Yoan Valat, Pool via AP)
French President Emmanuel Macron walks in a classroom before a televised interview in Berd'huis, south of Paris, Thursday, April 12, 2018. 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. (Yoan Valat, Pool via AP)
French President Emmanuel Macron, left, talks with journalist Jean-Pierre Pernaut after a televised interview in Berd'huis, south of Paris, Thursday, April 12, 2018. 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. (Yoan Valat, Pool via AP)

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron declared Thursday that strikes and protests will not prevent him from overhauling the nation's economy — comments that came as train workers, hospital staff, students, retirees, lawyers and magistrates are challenging his economic vision.

Macron appeared on national television TF1 Thursday to respond to the public's concerns and defend his economic policies and tax changes, which he says are aimed at modernizing the country.

The interview, in a schoolroom in a small village in western France, came hours ahead of a new round of train worker strikes.

Speaking with children's drawings in the background, Macron said public anger "doesn't stop" him and vowed to continue with the train reforms, meant to prepare France's national SNCF railway to open up to competition.

"We will continue because the world around us is speeding up, going through great changes, and because our country must be able to choose its destiny and live better," he said.

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."

Macron justified a tax rise for retirees, saying it's needed to be able to finance the pensions. He also insisted tax cuts for employees and businesses would boost investment and create more jobs.

Last year, despite labor protests, the government used a special, accelerated procedure to push a labor bill through parliament that many feel weakened France's worker protections.

This spring, Macron's government initiated 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 French train unions resisting his attempts to eliminate rules that effectively give workers jobs for life.

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

Polls show the majority of the French approve the changes to rail service, but a growing minority supports the strikes.

The strikes and protests evoke 1995, when massive general strikes 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 that he has scheduled two long television interviews to explain his position. After his 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, when strikes, occupations in universities and confrontations between police and students paralyzed France's economy. The period is considered a turning point toward a more modern country.

___

Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to the story.

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