French economy minister doesn’t believe Chinese growth data for ‘a second’
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Outspoken French economy minister Emmanuel Macron questioned the reliability of China’s official figures and restated his determination to reform France’s sluggish economy during a marathon round of meetings at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
A fixture of the French press, Macron remains a little-known figure abroad and the annual gathering of the rich and powerful in the Swiss mountain resort presented the perfect opportunity to burnish his international credentials.
Taking part in a whirlwind tour of interviews, debates and cocktail parties, the maverick minister touched on a broad spectrum of subjects including Europe’s refugee crisis, the digital economy and Chinese growth.
On Thursday, the timetable proved a little too tight. According to French daily Le Monde, Macron was so enthralled by a presentation of French tech companies’ latest innovations that he missed a scheduled meeting with India’s finance minister.
The next day, his widely quoted remarks on Chinese statistics gave foreign audiences a taste of his candid style.
"I said a few months ago that I don't believe for a second the figures that are being given,” Macron said, referring to China’s announcement this week that its economy grew by 6.9 percent in 2015.
Even though that represents the slowest growth rate in a quarter century, Macron suggested that the figure had been inflated.
“I think those [figures] that are still being officially announced are probably well above the reality but we just have to live with it," he said.
Growth statistics are a matter of international prestige for China, which has easily outpaced Western economies over the past two decades.
Strong figures have also emerged as a political necessity after a tumultuous year that saw Chinese stocks tumble amid panic-selling triggered by a sudden dip in investor confidence.
"We all know the growth data is overstated, particularly at the moment," Hong Kong-based investment analyst Peter Churchouse told the BBC. "It's a political gesture: they have to keep the domestic markets believing that growth is roughly close to 7 percent."
35-hour week under attack
Concerns that the slowdown in Chinese economic growth may be more brutal than Beijing is willing to acknowledge have contributed to deep concern in world financial markets.
Macron said increasingly volatile markets were further proof of the need to reform France’s underperforming economy, particularly its rigid labour market.
The former investment banker has infuriated members of the ruling Socialist Party with his repeated digs at French labour laws and the 35-hour week, which is reviled by business leaders but cherished by many French workers.
His iconoclastic positions have made him a darling of French media even as they have heightened divisions within the left-wing government of President François Hollande.
In Davos, Macron told FRANCE 24 of the need to “address misconceptions about France, about productivity and working hours”.
Referring to the 35-hour week, Macron said the government would seek to “increase negotiation at the corporate level about working hours, which means that through a majority agreement [companies] can adapt the model.”
Asked whether Socialist lawmakers would support such reforms, the minister added: “I think it will be debated in parliament, but at the end of the day the president has a strong view on that.”
France emerged from three years of economic stagnation last year with growth of more than 1.0 percent, but 650,000 people have been added to the jobless ranks since François Hollande became president in 2012.
Hollande pledged Monday to spend more than 2.0 billion euros ($2.2 billion) to tackle France's "state of economic emergency".
Joblessness, which stands at around 10 percent or 3.57 million people in the eurozone's second-largest economy, was the "only issue that ranks above security for the French people", the president said.