Protesters in Marseille take part in a ‘national day of action’ on Thursday © Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty

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Strikers are taking to the streets of France on Thursday for the first time since the country returned to work from the summer holidays, signalling a difficult rentrée for President Emmanuel Macron as he seeks to control a resurgence of coronavirus without crippling the economy through new lockdowns.

The “national day of action” called by the Communist-led Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and other union federations coincided with an announcement by the Japanese tyremaker Bridgestone that it would close its plant in Béthune in northern France with the loss of 863 jobs. 

Bridgestone’s announcement, although it reflects competitiveness problems for European car parts suppliers that predate the pandemic, triggered indignant protests from politicians and trade unionists. 

Bruno Le Maire, Mr Macron’s finance minister, called the decision “revolting”. 

Xavier Bertrand, a centre-right politician seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2022 who heads the Hauts-de-France region in the north, said the closure of the plant was “a premeditated assassination”. He wrote on Twitter: “We are dealing with cynics and liars. If they want to leave, we will fight to ensure they take responsibility.”

Since Mr Macron took office in 2017, he has courted local and foreign investors by cutting taxes on businesses and reforming the labour market.

The closure of the factory is a blow to his drive to “reshore” industries in France and Europe from Asia, although the government’s emphasis has been on attracting and funding high-tech operations such as the manufacture of efficient batteries for the new generation of electric vehicles rather than older industries.

Trade unionists such as Philippe Martinez, leader of the CGT, said they were demonstrating again in favour of pay rises for workers and the abandonment of reforms — such as Mr Macron’s pension system plan — that were put on hold as a result of the pandemic.

Public transport was severely disrupted in Nice on Thursday morning, but less affected in Paris, where the unions will stage a march at 2pm local time. 

Unemployment was falling until the arrival of Covid-19 this year, but lockdowns in France and across the world have sharply reversed the trend. The finance ministry said this week that it expected 800,000 jobs to be lost in 2020, a number that would have been much higher without billions of euros of emergency government support for jobs and businesses.

Olivier Dussopt, budget minister, said the latest predictions showed the French economy would shrink about 10 per cent this year — slightly better than the previous forecast — and grow 8 per cent in 2021 thanks to a €100bn national recovery plan partly funded by the EU.

By the end of next year, the economy would be 2.7 per cent smaller than at the end of last year. “Our aim is to return to the level of GDP before the crisis during 2022,” he said. Achieving this, however, will involve a surge in public debt. This year’s deficit is set at 10.2 per cent of gross domestic product, and next year’s at 6.7 per cent, more than double the pre-crisis limits set by the EU.

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