DUNKIRK, France (AP) – Building factories to boost job creation and make France more independent – such is President Emmanuel Macron’s ambition for the French economy.
It’s a huge challenge, as France grapples with protracted protests, rising food and energy prices and other fallout from the Ukraine war.
As Macron seeks to attract investors to help “re-industrialize” France and reduce Europe’s dependence on China and the United States, demonstrators across the country follow him, banging on pots in protest of economic injustice and his leadership.
On Monday, more than 200 international business leaders are expected to participate in the “Choose France” event held at the Palace of Versailles to promote foreign investment.
This follows a series of incentives announced by Macron last week to support innovative industries and the transition towards green technology. They include tax breaks in areas such as the production of batteries, electric cars, hydrogen and wind energy, as well as speeding up the authorization of industrial projects.
“France is changing, it is adapting to the course of the world and I think we are on the right path, which is to re-industrialize the country, to become more sovereign and more respectful of the climate and biodiversity,” Macron said on Friday. During a visit to Dunkirk in northern France.
Macron’s move comes after months of protests over his decision to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The unpopularity of the reform has weakened his government in parliament and hindered his economic strategy.
Trade unions called for a new round of nationwide demonstrations on 6 June. Meanwhile, opponents continue to stage small protests, with people loudly banging pots and pans at places where Macron and members of the government are scheduled to travel.
Credit rating agency Fitch last month downgraded France’s sovereign credit rating, citing the protest movement. “Political stalemate and (sometimes violent) social movements pose a threat to Macron’s reform agenda,” the agency wrote.
On Dunkirk Friday, Macron made time for several selfies with workers from several local factories who attended his speech at Aluminum Dunkerque, one of the largest aluminum production sites in Europe. None of them asked him about his retirement age and, unlike his previous visits through the French regions, he did not walk the streets of the city to meet the public.
A heavy police presence was deployed in Dunkirk to keep potential protesters away.
Macron announced two major investments, both in the battery sector: one worth €5.2 billion ($5.7 billion) by Taiwanese group Prologium, and another via a joint venture between China’s XTC with French energy giant Urano worth €1.5 billion ($1.6 billion). . It is expected to create 3,000 and 1,700 jobs in the region respectively by 2030.
He seized the opportunity to present pension reform as part of a “package” that has already produced “results”. “If we want to be more competitive,” he said, “we have to operate a little bit longer.”
Since taking office in 2017, Macron has cut taxes on businesses. He made it easy to hire and fire workers and difficult for the unemployed to claim benefits, amid other pro-business policies.
Macron said 300 new factories have been built since 2017 – two-thirds of them in the past two years – while 600 were closed in the previous decade. He stressed that the COVID-19 crisis and the Ukraine war showed that domestic industrial production is necessary to strengthen the country’s sovereignty.
France was, for the fourth year in a row, the European country that attracted the most foreign investment, said Macron, citing an EY survey last week.
The Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said Friday its statistics showed France’s unemployment rate in March reached its lowest level since 2001, at 6.9% – down from around 10% when Macron was elected. However, the unemployment rate in France is higher than the average in the European Union, and is stable at 6%.
ProLogium CEO Vincent Yang told reporters in Dunkirk that his group was considering setting up facilities in the United States, but ultimately chose the European Union as a more conducive environment for developing innovative battery technology.
Yang said France was a suitable choice because “we need stable, low-cost and green electric power” and Dunkirk, one of Europe’s major industrial ports, already has battery-related facilities. The country relies on nuclear energy. Energy savings of 70% of electricity, providing a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels.
Macron has been one of the most prominent advocates of a strong EU response to the $375 billion US inflation-cutting bill announced by President Joe Biden last summer in favor of clean energy technology.
Earlier this year, the European Union presented plans to revamp its policies on promoting green technologies, and to unlock subsidies and other financial incentives to increase domestic production.
“We will better direct our support to low-emission European products,” Macron said. We are not protected, but neither US nor Chinese taxpayers fund batteries made in Europe. So why should we be the only place in the world where taxpayers’ money goes to help non-European products? We will stop doing that.”
Last week he also called for a “pause” on EU environmental regulations, arguing that the 27-nation bloc already imposes stricter rules than its rivals. The comments drew immediate criticism from French and European Green politicians.
Macron later insisted he was committed to his climate commitments, including all policies aimed at getting the EU to carbon neutrality by 2050, but said: “Let’s not add any more.”
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