Macron’s minister sparks fury claiming French need to ‘work harder’ to fix economy

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Agnès Pannier-Runacher caused controversy (Image: GETTY)

A call by France’s finance ministry for people to “work harder” to help relaunch the economy after the coronavirus emergency is over has sparked a torrent of outrage from trade unions and critics, who slammed the proposal as “indecent”.

“[The suggestion] is totally indecent,” Laurent Berger, the head of the powerful CFDT union, told France 2 television on Sunday, adding that French workers were “already bearing the costs of this crisis”.

Conservative heavyweight Xavier Bertrand, the president of the Hauts-de-France region, also voiced anger at the proposal.

M Bertrand told BFM TV on Sunday: “What does [the government] want? Does it want to drive the French crazy?” 

“If government officials think austerity is the solution to the crisis, then they haven’t understood anything.”

The French right, however, appeared to welcome the proposal, with senator Bruno Retailleau of the centre-right Les Républicains party telling France Info radio that the French would have to “increase their work load” to help the economy “get back on its feet”.

On Saturday, junior economy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher started the controversy by saying the French would “probably have to work more than before” to “make up for the losses incurred” during the strict coronavirus lockdown.

“People must return to full-time work,” she told France Info radio.

Her remarks followed a call by France’s largest employer federation for people to “work harder and consider giving up paid holiday time and bank holidays” to help reboot the coronavirus-battered economy.

“Economic recovery has to start right now,” Medef chief Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux told newspaper Le Figaro on Friday.

The calls for France to normalise economic activity as quickly as possible came after Labour Minister Muriel Pénicaud said that the country’s state-subsidised furlough programme would cost more than €20billion (£17.4billion).

Mme Pénicaud said last week that 628,000 companies and associations had put nearly seven million workers on furlough under the programme, which allows firms to be reimbursed by the state for up to 84 percent of a worker’s wages.

She told BFM TV: “The cost for the state and (the state-backed unemployment fund) Unedic … I think it will be more than €20 billion.

But hopes of a swift return to normal were dashed on Monday, after President Emmanuel Macron announced he was extending a virtual lockdown to curb the outbreak until May 11, saying that while progress had been made the battle had not yet been won.

Since March 17, France’s 67 million people have been ordered to stay at home except to buy food, go to work, seek medical care or exercise alone.

The lockdown was originally scheduled to end Tuesday.

M Macron said in a televised address: “I fully understand the effort I’m asking from you.

“When will we be able to return to a normal life? I would love to be able to answer you. But to be frank, I have to tell you we don’t have definitive answers.”

Schools and shops will progressively reopen on May 11, but restaurants, hotels, cafés and cinemas will have to remain closed longer.

International arrivals from non-European countries will remain prohibited until further notice.

By Monday, the coronavirus had claimed 14,967 lives in France, the fourth-highest death toll in the world, with more than 98,076 confirmed cases, according to official figures.

However, the number of people in intensive care fell for the fifth day in a row, with 24 fewer people, leaving 6,821 in a critical condition.

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