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Macron government to tackle poverty, pensions, health

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, Minister of Public Action and Accounts Gerald Darmanin, Junior Minister for the Relations with Parliament, Christophe Castaner, Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert and Junior Minister for Public Administration, Oli
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, Minister of Public Action and Accounts Gerald Darmanin, Junior Minister for the Relations with Parliament, Christophe Castaner, Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert and Junior Minister for Public Administration, Oli Reuters

The French government discussed its to-do list at the first cabinet meeting after the summer recess on Wednesday. First on the list is a plan to tackle poverty, postponed from July, while reforms to the troubled health sector and pensions are to follow.


The last parliamentary session ended on a sour note for President Emmanuel Macron and his government, with the uproar over presidential bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, who was caught on camera assaulting student protesters while wearing a police crash helmet.

The Macron camp is clearly hoping the dust has settled on that question, although the opposition is extremely unlikely to miss any chance to remind the public of such a major embarrassment.

But there will be no change in strategy, the president told the first cabinet of the autumn, vowing to carry on with his reform programme.

Fighting poverty without redistributing wealth

First on the list is an anti-poverty plan, which should have been debated in July but was postponed to September as negotiation of the finer points dragged on.

After suffering more than a year of accusations that their champion is a president of the rich, his more left-inclined supporters, notably those who defected from the Socialist Party to join his Republic on the Move (REM), are anxious to be seen to be doing something for the less privileged.

But what?

There will be no "classic programme of redistribution" involving state handouts, Macron told both houses of parliament meeting in a special session in July.

The strategy will be one of "accompaniment" to bring people into "activity", he said.

One proposal is expected to be the simultaneous payment of all government benefits to claimants, to come into operation in 2019.

Education is also expected to be a key element, with the government having already halved the size of classes in deprived areas.

Constitutional reform back on agenda

Parliament will begin its new session with act two of the great constitutional reform debate.

Opposition obstruction prevented a vote on that before the summer break.

Now the government returns to battle on a plan whose measures include reducing the number of MPs by 30 percent and scrapping a special court devoted to cases of ministerial misconduct.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux on Wednesday said they were "very attached" to the project.

Health service, pension reforms

Looking ahead to next year, the government is to propose change to the health service, currently under strain, particularly over staffing levels.

Details of the plan are to be made public next month but it is expected to cover the quality and pertinence of care, finance and salaries, digitalisation and personnel.

Macron's pledge to reform the state pension scheme looks likely to prove more controversial.

He wants a single, unified system, which may put an end to specific generous schemes for arduous professions, the railway workers's one being the best known.

In an interview published Thursday, hard-left MP Jean-Luc Mélenchon predicted a battle to defend "one of the last great monuments of the French social model of redistribution of wealth".

The trade unions and opposition parties will muster more unity on that front than during the campaign against Macron's labour law, he said.

Unemployment benefit

Ministers have also fixed appointments with trade unions and employers' groups to discuss revamping the unemployment insurance system, which are jointly managed by bosses' and workers' representatives.

It wants to take measures against companies that abuse short-term contracts and change payments to part-time workers and the long-term unemployed.

One REM MP, Aurélien Taché, has floated the idea of reducing payments to people fired from high-paying jobs, given that payouts relate to a claimant's former salary.

Budgetary restraint

The government is committed to reducing the budget deficit to 2.3 percent of GDP next year but the business sector's oft-expressed enthusiasm for the president has not translated into substantial improvements in growth, which looks unlikely to reach the target of 1.8 percent.

That means tax receipts will be lower than hoped, so spending will be under pressure.

There are promises of no cuts in education, defence and security but there will be  in other sectors - housing benefit and subsidised jobs to start with - and public-sector employment is to be reduced drastically.

EU and armistice centenary

Macron clearly intends to keep a high profile on the international plane.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to visit Paris soon and the French president will try to rally European "progressives" against the rising tide of nationalism.

Another visitor will be US President Donald Trump, who so enjoyed attending the 2017 Bastille Day parade that he wanted to have his own version.

He has already said yes to an invitation to attend the celebration of the centenary of the armistice that put an end to World War I on 11 Noveber 1918.

Macron will address a "forum for peace" in Paris on that occasion.

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