Macron taking bold steps to reposition France as Europe’s economic hub

French President Emmanuel Macron is hosting 180 international business leaders at the Palace of Versailles in a bid to promote France’s economic attractiveness despite more than six weeks of crippling strikes over his government’s planned pension changes.

Top executives from Google, Netflix, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Samsung and General Electric were among those attending the annual event Monday, the Associated Press (AP) reports.

Macron wants to promote his economic policies, including labor changes and tax cuts, to attract more foreign investors to the eurozone’s second-largest economy. Many of the foreign executives were stopping in France en route to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

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On Monday morning before the gathering, Macron was visiting a plant of British-Swedish pharmaceutical group Astrazeneca in the northern town of Dunkirk. The company announced $500 million in new investments over the next 5 years.

Several companies used the Versailles event to announce planned investments in France, Macron’s office said. International shipping company MSC on Monday was formally signing a giant 2 billion-euro ($2.2 billion) contract to build two cruise ships in the French shipyard of Saint-Nazaire, along the Atlantic coast. The ships to be delivered in 2025 and 2027 represents about 2,400 jobs for over 3 years. MSC also confirmed plans to build other ships in France for an additional 4 billion euros ($4.4 billion).

Coca-Cola said it would invest 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) over the next 5 years in France, including in its Dunkirk plant. This comes in addition to Japanese automaker Toyota announcing last week it will build a new model of car at its plant of Valenciennes, northern France, which represents 400 jobs and 100 million euros ($110 million) in investments.

Macron was elected in 2017 on a pro-European, pro-business platform in which he argued that France must become more globally competitive. He has started cutting taxes on business revenue and passed labor changes to make it easier to hire and fire workers and make it harder to get unemployment benefits.

For such policies, Macron has faced strikes and protests by French workers, including the yellow vest economic justice movement that erupted in November 2018 and prompted street demonstrations for months against France’s high cost of living and perceived social injustices.

In recent weeks, his plans to overhaul France’s pension system have prompted major transport strikes. Macron says his plan to unite over 40 different retirement systems into one will be fairer to all French workers. French workers who have special retirement deals are objecting, and a wide variety of workers are against any moves to raise the current retirement age of 62.

Train traffic was close to normal Monday and the Paris metro was only slightly disrupted after a major union called Saturday to suspend the strikes. The government says labor measures have started producing results and creating more jobs. France’s unemployment rate has decreased this year to its lowest level in a decade, but at 8.6% it still remains among the highest in the European Union.

The World Economic Forum in its 2019 global competitiveness report —an assessment of the competitive landscape of 141 economies— rated France at the 15, up from 22 in 2017.