Macron seeks workers' backing with hometown factory visit

3 min

Amiens (France) (AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron returned Tuesday to a factory in his hometown that became a focus of anger about job losses, seeking to underline his concern for workers amid criticism about his tax cuts for the rich.

Wearing a high-visibility jacket, Macron toured the plant owned by appliance maker Whirlpool in northeastern Amiens that was the scene of a dramatic clash between him and anti-globalisation far-right rival Marine Le Pen during the election campaign in April.

At the time, US-based Whirlpool was threatening to make nearly 300 people redundant at the tumble-dryer plant as it shifts jobs to eastern Europe, thrusting the issue of industrial decline into the spotlight.

Following negotiations between the local government and Whirlpool, the site is set to be sold to a local businessman who has promised to keep on nearly all the workers at a new factory on the site.

Macron hailed the apparent success story as the result of "discussions that have worked", while warning: "I won't say that everything is going to be fixed in six months."

He praised the role of the "audacious" buyer, Nicolas Decayeux, while saying the state had fulfilled its role in helping find an investor.

The 39-year-old centrist, in power since May, is facing growing resistance from trade unions to his pro-business agenda and has provoked unease even among members of his own party with his tax plans.

In a budget for 2018 unveiled last week, the government announced plans to scrap a wealth tax on financial investments which has been portrayed by opponents as a sop to the rich.

- 'President for the rich?' -

Macron, whose popularity has recovered slightly from a sharp fall in August, has insisted the change is necessary to encourage entrepreneurs and investment in French companies.

"The reason for his progress (in the polls) is that people think he is doing what he said he'd do," pollster Jean-Daniel Levy from the Harris Interactive survey company told AFP.

"But he is increasingly perceived as a 'president for the rich'," he added.

His manifesto included changes to the labour law, which have now been passed, as well as cuts to public spending and an overhaul of unemployment benefits and pensions -- all contentious issues for France's powerful trade unions.

- Union resistance grows -

Though the government has avoided massive protests so far, several union leaders have indicated they are ready to step up their resistance to the former investment banker.

The head of the moderate CFDT union, Laurent Berger, called for a "change of direction by the government" on Tuesday, a day after his counterpart at the hard-left FO union called for demonstrations.

"Since the start of July, every time there's a decision, it is to ask for an effort by the most vulnerable," he told France 2 television.

In its budget, the government also cut money set aside for housing benefits, which go to the poor, while reducing state subsidies for short-term contracts used by local governments and associations.

The lower house of parliament, dominated by Macron's new political party Republic on the Move (LREM), is set to adopt a new counter-terrorism law on Tuesday that has been criticised by rights experts.

Macron, who was born in Amiens to doctor parents, promised to return to the Whirlpool factory after visiting it in April where he faced a hostile welcome from striking workers during his campaign for the presidency.

He is also expected to visit a new plant being built by Amazon which is bringing much-needed jobs in a region where unemployment is running at around 12 percent, compared with a national average of 9.5 percent.