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France won't ease reforms if far-right make EU gains - PM

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France won't ease reforms if far-right make EU gains - PM
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gestures as he speaks during a news conference following the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, France May 7, 2019. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS   -   Copyright  POOL(Reuters)
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PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron will press ahead with a social and economic reform agenda that spurred months of anti-government protests in France even if the far-right comes out on top in European elections, his prime minister said on Thursday.

Ten days from the vote in France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party, which is running on a campaign to overhaul the European Union from within, is level with Macron’s En Marche in opinion polls.

“Does (the vote) totally change commitments the president made during the presidential campaign, … does it change the (parliamentary) majority’s determination, the whole logic of the government’s actions? The answer is no,” Edouard Philippe said.

“Things are going to continue, to be stepped up for the good of the country because we have committed to do it,” he said on franceinfo radio.

The vote for the European Parliament’s 571 seats has turned into a showdown between pro-EU and eurosceptic forces in France, where 74 seats are up for grabs.

Le Pen, whose lead candidate is a clean-cut 23-year-old with a knack for connecting with voters, has in past months shifted tack, dropping calls for France to quit the euro currency and for the end of the EU.

Elected in 2017 on a pro-business reform platform, Macron lost little time at the start of his presidency pushing through a major overhaul of the labour code to ease hiring and firing rules while setting a flat 30% tax capital to encourage investment in businesses.

The 41-year-old president has since refocused his reform drive on boosting households’ income after facing months of street protests over the cost of living and elitism.

Philippe said that unemployment figures on Thursday showing joblessness at a decade low were evidence the reforms were beginning to pay off, though further efforts were still needed.

The government’s next major reform steps are to overhaul the unemployment and pensions systems this year.

Asked if the government would change course in case of far-right gains, Philippe said: “I don’t think so. The government in general needs to be consistent and coherent.”

Le Pen’s movement hopes to form an alliance with like-minded parties and control up to 80 seats in the European Parliament – a number that would see it gain substantial influence in an assembly with oversight of legislation affecting more than 500 million EU citizens.

(Reporting by Leigh Thomas and Marine Pennetier; Editing by Richard Lough and Andrew Cawthorne)

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