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A select group of foreign media were ushered to the Matignon palace on Wednesday evening for a reassurance session with Manuel Valls, the French prime minister battling union opposition after ramming a jobs bill through parliament without a vote.
The goal? Try and fix the fast deteriorating image of France abroad after a week of messy protests. Do not draw the cliched conclusion that France is a chaotic and unreformable country, he pleaded, even if the country’s largest union – headed by thegrumpy-looking, mustachioed Philippe Martinez – threatens to disrupt transport and fuel supplies during the Euro 2016 football championship. “Tell your readers: ‘Come by plane. Come by car. Come by train’,” Mr Valls urged.
It was also an attempt by the 53-year old to quash mounting suspicion in Brussels and Berlin — perhaps rising as fast as the Seine levels after a week of unusually heavy rains — that the much-awaited jobs reform may not be one after all. “The CGT knows my determination,” Mr Valls insisted. “I won’t change a thing.” What Mr Valls really meant was that he would refuse to touch article 2 of the reform, a key provision stipulating that companies’ deals with their unions and employees on overtime would supersede sectoral collective bargaining.
There were personal political motives too: to reclaim his place as reformer and taboo breaker of the French left, which the iconoclastic, younger and more popular Emmanuel Macron now seems to occupy. Since being appointed by François Hollande in 2014, Mr Valls has had to be loyal and defend whatever the deeply unpopular president initiated — including the controversial and failed attempt to change the constitution to strip Frenchterrorists of their citizenship. As a result, Mr Valls’ popular backing has sunk to levels almost as low as the president’s abysmal approval ratings.