France's Macron says divisive labour reforms should be tougher

PARIS, May 23 (Reuters) - French labour reforms that have sparked strikes and divided the Socialists’ governing majority need to go further, according to Emmanuel Macron, the economy minister widely seen as a potential contender in next year’s presidential election.

In an interview published in Tuesday’s edition of Les Echos, Macron underlined his pro-business, reformist credentials by calling for a further weakening of collective bargaining by unions in areas including workers’ pay.

“Salary negotiations should happen as close as possible to company level,” he told the business daily.

Among its other provisions, the hotly contested new labour law would allow working time agreements to be negotiated within individual companies - while other pay-and-conditions deals would still be thrashed out with unions across entire sectors.

With unemployment stuck near 10 percent, unpopular French President Francois Hollande’s government rammed the law through parliament without a vote and is now facing down a scrappy coalition of blockading truckers, rioting students and striking oil workers intent on forcing a retreat.

Macron’s comments may pour fuel on that fire while doing little to damage his own approval ratings - a multiple of Hollande’s. The 38-year-old former investment banker recently launched his own movement, “En Marche!” (“Forward!”) and is striking an unabashedly centrist pose.

“Public opinion is intelligent and wants to see change,” Macron told Les Echos. “Most French voters want to work, desire progress and remain lucid.”

Wage restraint is key to a recovery of French industrial competitiveness, Macron also said, adding that companies should use the nascent economic upturn to invest more in skills rather than paying out cash.

“You have to prefer investment, jobs and training over dividends and salaries,” he said.

Reporting by Laurence Frost; Editing by Cynthia Osterman