AP Interview: Economy chief says France is back and open for business, pledges big reforms

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – France’s economy minister says the country needs big changes to reinvigorate hiring and investment, following reports that Britain had overtaken it in economic size — a sensitive issue in France.

Socialist Emmanuel Macron, speaking to The Associated Press at a major electronics show in Las Vegas, says France needs to shake up the way its economy works and to “accelerate our efforts for competitiveness” via lower taxes.

Macron, 37, former investment banker, is a controversial figure within his Socialist Party, where opponents fear he is pushing France too far toward an American-style model that doesn’t do enough to protect workers and the needy.

France’s role in Europe is of particular importance to Paris, and a report on the EU Commission website suggesting the U.K. economy has overtaken France as Europe’s No. 2 economy has made headlines. Unlike the U.K., France’s economy is struggling mightily to grow.

Macron noted the EU Commission estimates were not official figures and that weak growth is a broader problem in the region.

“We have a lack of growth in Europe, in eurozone and in France and we are struggling hard to recover and restore this growth,” Macron said.

Advocating for pro-business policies, Macron said France, whose high taxes and regulations have stifled innovation and economic growth, is now “a haven for entrepreneurs”. The highly symbolic 75-per cent tax on high earners, dropped by France last month, “is over now, and finished.”

France’s government launched a plan to cut payroll taxes by up to 40 billion euros ($49 billion) by 2017, hoping to boost hiring.

Macron also presented last month a bill that aims mainly to free up France’s labour rules and regulations. The text is to be debated from January 26 at Parliament.

“We are implementing an in-depth reform on labour market not to reduce rights for workers, but to provide more visibility and more efficiency to investors and employers, because it’s the key for job creation”, Macron said.

France’s unemployment rate has hovered around 10 per cent for more than four years.

Macron, who became economy minister in August 2014, has become the symbol of the change within the French Socialist government in favour of more reformist policies. At the time of his appointment, he caused a big uproar in the French left by saying he was open to rethinking France’s 35-hour workweek.