French President Emmanuel Macron (File photo: Xinhua)
PARIS, June 12 (Xinhua) -- As French President Emmanuel Macron began the third year of his five-year term amid social malaise, he has put the environment and social justice "at the heart" of his policymaking, seeking ways to accelerate the energy transition, guaranteeing that "work pays", and calling for an EU-wide minimum wage to get the wind back in his sails.
Presenting the French government's roadmap, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told lawmakers on Wednesday that "there is still an economic, social, ecological and political emergency", which according to him required a relaunch of the reform drive with "coherence" and "constancy".
Philippe acknowledged that errors had been made, but he promised "to reconcile France with itself, by ... putting the human at the heart of our concerns" via "a clear and dense roadmap".
Upon his inauguration in May 2017, Macron pledged that his first mission would be uniting the French people, facing all challenges and getting the country out of the crisis.
Since then, he has changed the labor code, promised to overhaul the pension system, and proposed to inject dynamism into public services and institutions and to reform the rail sector and the education system -- areas where he was facing fierce opposition that drew thousands to the country's streets in addition to rolling strikes.
While his fuel tax reform had triggered the "Yellow Vests," movement which turned into a rebellion against the president's leadership, France's unemployment rate is now at a ten-year low, investment at a 12-year high and purchasing power is improving, Philippe said.
"That's given us a legitimacy to continue working ... We've done a lot in the past two years and we need to do a lot more," he said amid cheers from ruling party lawmakers.
"Our country needs to transform itself. Our enemy is not action, it is the status quo," he stressed.
ECOLOGY AT HEART OF "MACRON II"
"The next 12 months will be those of ecological acceleration and making our economy cleaner is at the heart of Act II," the prime minister said.
"Today, we see everywhere the effects of climate change," he said, admitting that "It took me a long time to consider that these issues were as urgent as job protection or security."
"We have to invent an economic model where energy sobriety, clean transport, healthy eating and recycling are progressing much faster than the growth rate. It's my conviction and I want to be judged on these acts," he said.
He said that between now and the end of Macron's mandate in 2022 his government will focus on how to "make our economy cleaner," "break with waste" and "produce and eat better".
In this context, he recalled that two reactors at the Fessenheim nuclear plant, the country's oldest one, will be stopped before 2020, adding to the closure of the country's remaining coal-fired power plants by 2022 and creating incentives for about one million households to convert to clean transport.
The list of green measures also includes a 100 percent plastic recycling target and a ban on all single-use plastic products from the administration by next year.
ENSURING WORK PAYS
In an answer to critics who say that the reforms have eaten into household spending and ignited social unrest, Philippe pledged a "profound change of method" to guarantee "social justice (that) means making sure it pays to work."
"Social justice is to allow everyone to work. Unemployment is falling, but we are not done with mass unemployment," he said.
Confirming a pledge made by Macron earlier this year, Philippe pledged to cut the income tax for middle-class workers and to completely abolish the housing tax.
As for unemployment benefits, Phillipe told lawmakers that allowances for high earners would gradually decrease to encourage the jobless to get back to work more quickly. He also said that companies hiring workers would be offered incentives to phase out short-term contracts.
On the sensitive issue of the retirement age, the government would maintain the "possibility of a departure at 62 years." But it would offer incentives for those who want to work longer.
"Thus everyone can make his choice freely and responsibly," he said.
As part of Macron's economic, fiscal and social roadmap for the next three years, a draft bill that would allow single women or female couples to have access to assisted reproduction "will be presented in cabinet meeting by the end of July and will be examined in the National Assemby by the end of September," Philippe said.
"I am confident that we can achieve a kind of serene, deep, serious debate, up to the demands of our country, which is my ambition," he said.
If adopted, the draft legislation, one of President Macron's presidential campaign promises, will extend the right to medically assisted pregnancies to lesbians and single women.
In predominantly Catholic France, the law currently restricts techniques, such as artificial insemination using donated sperm, to heterosexual couples.
After outlining promises of a cleaner economy and to do more to address pressing social issues, France's centrist government comfortably won a routine confidence vote in the lower house of parliament, dominated by Macron's Republic on the Move party.
Out of 526 lawmakers who voted, 363 approved and 163 rejected the reform drive, while 47 abstained.