April 3, 2018 / 11:53 AM / 7 months ago

French finance minister says committed to reforms as strikes bite

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s finance minister pledged on Tuesday to push ahead with President Emmanuel Macron’s drive to modernize the economy, just as rail unions launched the first of three months of rolling strikes, crippling train transport.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire waits for German Finance Minister and vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz before a meeting in Paris, France March 16, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Bruno Le Maire said the government would not pull back from economic reforms he said had helped make 2017 the best year for foreign corporate investment in France in records going back to 2001.

“That’s the clearest evidence that France is back, that there is a dynamic underway and we will do everything to boost that dynamic,” Le Maire said during a presentation about foreign investment in France.

Nearly 1,300 foreign investments last year helped create 33,489 French jobs, Business France, which promotes the country, said, while total foreign investment rose 16 percent from 2016.

U.S. companies overtook German ones as the top source of investment, with the number of U.S. investments up 26 percent for the year, against a 9 percent increase from Germany.

France’s high taxes and strict labor laws have long hurt its image with foreign investors, although that is changing after Macron made it easier to hire and fire workers and committed to cutting corporate tax to the EU average.

The French economy posted its best annual growth since 2011 last year, expanding 2 percent, and persistently high unemployment has begun to fall.

A survey on Tuesday showing that manufacturing grew at the slowest pace in a year in March suggested overall growth would moderate, although weaker customer demand was blamed on bad weather as well as a stronger euro.

Business France said Macron’s May 2017 election on a pro-business reform agenda — a break with the traditional right-left mold of French politics — had boosted France’s image among foreign investors.

Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister, has gone out of his way to attract investment, notably hosting 140 heads of multinational firms at the palace of Versailles in January to pitch France as a place to do business.

Macron wants in particular to boost incentives for entrepreneurs to launch start-ups and has cut tax on all capital income to a flat 30 percent.

French firms saw a record level of equity inflows last year with 14.3 billion euros ($17.6 billion) of venture capital investment, according to figures published by the France Invest association, which represents the industry, on Tuesday.

Though Macron is carrying out reforms his predecessors shied away from, he faces a growing challenge from unions in a country where tensions with labor have long kept governments from being bolder in their reforms.

Unions severely disrupted railway services across France on Tuesday, the first day of rolling strikes that will be a serious test Macron’s resolve to carry out changes.

The four main rail unions plan to strike for two days out of every five for the next three months to fight a shake-up of the national rail company SNCF before its monopoly is ended in line with European Union rules.

Reporting by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Catherine Evans

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