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Macron approves 1bn waterway project on tense home visit

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting of the strategic committee for the Seine-Nord Europe Canal in Nesle, northern France, on November 22, 2019.
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting of the strategic committee for the Seine-Nord Europe Canal in Nesle, northern France, on November 22, 2019. CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT / AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron has approved a 1.1 billion euro waterway project that will link the Seine basin to two areas in Belgium, on the final day of his home visit to Amiens, mired in controversy.

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"We have reached an important milestone" in this "industrial adventure," Macron said Friday, shortly after concluding a 1.1 billion euro financing agreement to build a mega waterway project linking France and Belgium, on the final day of his visit to Amiens.

The project, known as the Canal-Seine-Nord, will bring together a network of 1,100 km of inland waterways between the Seine basin and the Scheldt and Maas basins in Belgium.

It is designed to free up traffic flow by allowing drivers to travel by water, "up to four times less polluting than travelling on roads," Macron said.

"After fighting for nearly thirty years, it is with great emotion that many elected officials can at last witness this critical stage," the president added, praising what he described as an "emblematic project" and France's capacity to "project itself into the future, and to take on mega infrastructure works."

New jobs and losses

The project, estimated to cost 5 billion euros, will also receive funding from the European Union, and has already sparked hopes of new jobs.

"This is the project of the century," right-wing politician Xavier Bertrand told AFP.

It could create "more than 35,000 jobs (...) 5,000 during the construction stage and more than 30,000 after that to operate the platforms and develop the ports" he said.

The announcement may serve to deflect attention away from a tense encounter between the French president and former factory workers earlier on Friday.

Macron visited the Whirlpool factory in the morning and was confronted by angry workers who had lost their jobs after a government takeover bid went bust.

Failure and optimism

Macron, who visited the same struggling plant in 2017 during his campaign to be president, admitted that his attempt to save the workers' jobs had "failed."

Whirlpool moved production to Poland, and many of its 286 staff went into unemployment. The new buyer chosen by the government later went bankrupt.

François Ruffin, a far-left politician who attended the same school as Macron, said the government should have the courage to admit they had “screwed up”.

Macron used the trip to his hometown of Amiens to also talk with students, whom he told not to be so negative. The bout of optimism may come in handy ahead of a wave of strikes from 5 December.

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