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Business-friendly French economy chief goes to US to seek investment, promote reforms

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PARIS — France's economy minister is heading to the U.S. on Wednesday to urge more American companies to invest in the country, as he tries to reform the rules and image of a nation with a reputation for strikes and high labor costs.

Macron, a former investment banker, is touting the creativity of French start-ups, especially in digital technology and biotechnologies. The government launched this year "French tech visas" to attract young entrepreneurs from abroad willing to create start-ups in France.

Macron prompted a rebellion within his own Socialist Party for trying to loosen up hard-fought labor protections in a law that bears his name and is working its way through parliament.

But he's not stopping there. He told journalists this week that he wants to "accelerate" and promised another reform to "modernize the labor market" for this autumn.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Jan.6, 2015 file photo, French finance minister Emmanuel Macron, center, tours the Parrot booth with Parrot CEO and founder Henri Seydoux, right, and Louis Schweitzer, left,  at the International CES in Las Vegas. France's economy minister is heading to the U.S. to urge more American companies to invest in France, as he tries to reform a country with a reputation for strikes and high labor costs. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
FILE - In this Jan.6, 2015 file photo, French finance minister Emmanuel Macron, center, tours the Parrot booth with Parrot CEO and founder Henri Seydoux, right, and Louis Schweitzer, left, at the International CES in Las Vegas. France's economy minister is heading to the U.S. to urge more American companies to invest in France, as he tries to reform a country with a reputation for strikes and high labor costs. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

"We need more flexibility, stability and predictability on the labor market," he said. "If we want more flexibility, we have to decrease the role of the state, and to give more flexibility on the ground to people through contracts, corporate agreements and branch agreements. That's a big reform."

The stakes are high. France's economy has long been stagnant and has a 10 percent unemployment rate that French President Francois Hollande has made it his mission to bring down.

His bill would notably allow stores to open 12 times a year on Sunday instead of five — not a huge change but dramatic for France. Another measure would reform labor courts. The government considers that current labor laws are discouraging hiring, because it is so costly and difficult to lay off or move around workers during a downturn.

The government isn't just looking for French investment but wants U.S. investment too — and Macron isn't shy about praising the more flexible American model. That's especially surprising for a French leftist, in a country where worker protections were long considered a sacred accomplishment of the modern era.

Macron meets entrepreneurs in New York and Harvard students and biotech executives in Boston. He'll then meet in Washington with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and officials from the International Monetary Fund.

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