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Despite protests, Macron vows to press on, reform France’s economy

Students on Thursday were blocking the entrance to Saint-Charles University in Marseille, amid nationwide protests.
Students on Thursday were blocking the entrance to Saint-Charles University in Marseille, amid nationwide protests.(Claude Paris/Associated Press)

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron declared Thursday that strikes and protests will not prevent him from overhauling France’s economy — comments that came as train workers, hospital staffers, students, retirees, lawyers, and magistrates were challenging his economic vision.

Macron appeared on the national television network TF1 to respond to the public’s concerns and defend his economic policies and tax changes, which he says are aimed at modernizing the country.

The interview, in a schoolroom in a small village in western France, came hours ahead of a new round of train worker strikes.

Speaking with children’s drawings in the background, Macron said public anger ‘‘doesn’t stop’’ him and vowed to continue with changes designed to prepare France’s national railway, the SNCF, to open up to competition.

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‘‘We will continue because the world around us is speeding up, going through great changes, and because our country must be able to choose its destiny and live better,’’ he said.

In what some portray as a fight for the identity of France, Macron wants to reduce the role of the state and inject vitality in the economy by trimming guarantees for workers and increasing competition, among other things.

His critics say he is favoring the rich and eroding workers’ hard-won labor rights with moves that risk increasing wealth disparity in a country whose national motto includes the word ‘‘equality.’’

Macron justified a tax rise for retirees, saying it’s needed to finance pensions. He also insisted tax cuts for employees and businesses would boost investment and create more jobs.

Last year, despite labor protests, the government used an accelerated procedure to push a labor bill through Parliament that many feel weakened worker protections.

This spring, Macron’s government initiated changes to tax retirees more and employees less, cut jobs in some hospitals, reorganize the justice system, and apply a new university admissions system — all prompting protests.

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But Macron’s biggest challenge so far is from railroad unions, which are resisting his attempt to eliminate rules that in effect give workers jobs for life. That has prompted nationwide strikes that have disrupted train traffic, and the unions plan periodic rolling strikes through June. Legislators begin debating the railroad labor bill this week.

Polls show a majority of the public approves the rail service changes, but a growing minority supports the strikes.

The strikes and protests evoke those of 1995. That year, general strikes forced President Jacques Chirac’s government to abandon its agenda for the economy.

This week, protesting students are occupying and partially blocking several public universities. They fear a bill to reorganize university admissions will threaten the current system, under which all high school graduates have free access to public universities.

The Elysee Palace so far considers the protest movement as relatively limited, compared with the 1.6 million students enrolled in French universities.

But Macron is worried enough that he scheduled two long television interviews to explain his position. In addition to Thursday’s session, he will spend two hours answering questions on Sunday.