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The five priorities for France’s new Prime Minister

France's new Prime Minister - until recently a low-profile bureaucrat and local mayor - has outlined his plans to revitalise the nation, vowing to make jobs his overarching priority.

The five priorities for France's new Prime Minister
Jean Castex makes his speech to the French parliament. Photo: AFP

Jean Castex won solid backing in the French parliamentary on Wednesday as he outlined the main priotiries for the government in the months to come.

With the economy having taken a battering over the effects of the coronavirus Castex, drafted in by President Emmanuel Macron to head a new government and lead the nation out of its worst health and economic crisis since World War II, said he was up for the challenge.

He duly won the support of 345 lawmakers to 177 against with 43 abstentions.

1. Masks

With France's Covid-19 death toll exceeding 30,000 one of the world's highest, Castex also confirmed to Le Parisien daily what Macron had trailed in his July 14th national day address, that from August 1st masks in shops and other enclosed public spaces will be mandatory to stop a virus resurgence.

READ ALSO When and where are masks compulsory in France?

 

Keeping the virus under control will of course be the major preoccupation of the government and the Prime Minister, whose previous role saw him drawing up the detailed plans for the gradual loosening of the lockdown.

Both the government and the advisory Scientific Council have already said that there will be no return to a nationwide lockdown, even if there is a second wave in the autumn, but local lockdowns could be introduced in areas that have major outbreaks.

2. Jobs

Castex said preserving jobs would be the key plank of his programme over the coming 18 months and also fleshed out some details of a mooted €100 billion EU scheme to tackle unemployment as the bloc's 27 economies reel from the effects of the coronavirus.

“Let's get to work,” said Castex, whose government has pledged billions of euros for investments as well as measures to limit job losses in an economy expected to shrink by around 10 percent this year.

3. Pension reform

The highly controversial reform of the French pension system which lead to weeks of transport strikes in December and January is back on the table. Implementing the project was temporarily shelved while the government grappled with the health crisis, but both Macron and Castex have said that they will be bringing it back, albeit with some tweaks after extra consultations.

4. The environment

Castex pledged to the parliament to reinforce social protection while stepping up efforts to transition to a green economy.

Macron has already said he will not oppose a referendum on the far-reaching proposals of the Citizens' Charter on the Climate. The package of measures – put together by 150 members of the public in a nine-month brainstorming session – aim to reduce carbon emissions in France by at least 40 percent by 2030.

5. The health system

The health system is also to receive support – with Castex confirming to parliament the €6 billion already announced, including support for wages rises for health workers.

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POLITICS

Macron vs the unions: What happens next in France?

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing his biggest standoff with France's trade unions since coming to power in 2017, with the outcome of a series of strikes and protests seen as decisive for both sides.

Macron vs the unions: What happens next in France?

The 45-year-old leader has made raising the retirement age a signature domestic policy of his second term in office — something the unions and millions of protesters are determined to block.

After two days of nationwide strikes and demonstrations, AFP looks at what is likely to happen next on the streets, in parliament, inside the government, and in wider French public opinion.

On the streets

Labour leaders were delighted with their second day of protests on Tuesday, which they claimed had seen around 2.5 million people hit the streets, including in many small and medium-sized towns.

Official estimates put the figure at 1.27 million, compared to 1.1 million people during round one on January 19th, according to the interior ministry.

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember

Momentum is clearly with the unions who announced two further days of protests and strikes next week, on Tuesday and Saturday.

“The movement is growing and spread across the whole country,” the head of the hard-left CGT union, Philippe Martinez, said on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, unions no longer have the ability to paralyse the country and working-from-home practices mean most white-collar workers can easily adjust to transport stoppages.

The biggest fear of authorities is a repeat of the 2018 so-called “Yellow Vest” protests — a spontaneous movement drawn mostly from the countryside and small-town France that led to shockingly violent clashes with police. 

“The trauma was so big and the violence so great, I don’t see it happening again for the moment,” Bruno Cautres from Sciences Po university in Paris told AFP earlier this month. 

In government 

The government was expecting a rough ride — few major policy changes happen in France without protests, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy faced similar resistance with his pension reform in 2010.

Macron has faced numerous challenges from the unions in the past and has always succeeded in pushing through his pro business agenda and social security reforms.

The only exception was his first attempt at pension reform — also highly contested — which he withdrew in 2020 during the Covid 19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has been the public face of the latest proposals, while Macron has kept his statements and appearances to a minimum, as is his habit.

But with the battle lines hardening and protests growing, the president might be forced to enter the fray. 

“I think the president will speak, but not right now,” a minister told AFP on condition of anonymity. “If he did it now, it would look like we’re panicking.”

In parliament

The draft legislation will be debated for the first time in the 577-seat National Assembly from Monday.

Macron’s allies are the largest group with 170 seats, but they do not hold a majority after a weaker-than-expected showing in June elections.

Support from the 62 rightwing Republicans (LR) party MPs will be essential.

LR has long supported raising the retirement age, but there are doubts over how many of their MPs will give the government their backing.

“I’m not asking the government to give in to the protests. This reform needs to be done,” LR parliamentary party chief Olivier Marleix said on Wednesday.

The lower house debate will finish on February 17th at the latest when a vote can be called — or the government could transfer it to the Senate or ram it through with controversial executive powers that dispense with the need for a ballot.

The bill is expected to pass the conservative-dominated Senate, where a vote is to take place by mid-March.

Public opinion

The latest polling figures show a growing majority opposes the reform and supports the protests, with roughly two in three people against the proposals.

Ministers have struggled to find winning arguments, at times arguing the changes are needed to reduce government spending, at others insisting they will make the pension system fairer.

“The government has not won with the argument that it is necessary,” Bernard Sananes, the head of the Elabe polling group, told AFP. “And it is fighting on another, more intense front which is that the reform is seen as unfair.”

In private, Macron’s allies insist their best hope is for parliament to quickly approve the legislation that will never be popular but might grudgingly be accepted as necessary.

“The question is how big the protest movement will be and how long it will last,” the minister told AFP.

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