[PARIS] French presidential hopeful Alain Juppe, the frontrunner in opinion polls 20 years after serving as a deeply unpopular prime minister, said on Tuesday he would roll back France's iconic 35-hour working week and scrap a wealth tax if elected next year.
In the mid-1990s Mr Juppe triggered France's worst unrest in decades because he would not budge on pension reforms. He eventually had to drop them after weeks of strikes and protests.
Now aged 70, he has shrugged off a decades-old image of a grey technocrat to top opinion polls for the April 2017 presidential election. But the memory of the 1995 strikes means that how he handles the presentation of his economic agenda will be key to his election chances.
"The French are being kept from working by excessive labour costs. I want to cut those costs," Mr Juppe told hundreds of supporters as he outlined his economic platform.
"We need a different mindset."
Trying to navigate a fine line between presenting a liberal platform and not rubbing up voters the wrong way, Mr Juppe said he would raise the retirement age to 65 from 62 while cutting both taxes and state spending.
Mr Juppe said he would aim to cut public spending by 80-100 billion euros (S$109-137 billion) over five years and to reduce payroll taxes by 10 billion euros and corporate taxes by 11 billion euros.
While the standard weekly working time would be increased to 39 from a current 35, the increase would actually be negotiated in each firm. After two years, if there were no deal, the firm would be entitled to impose a move to 39 hours.
Mr Juppe also said he would cap welfare subsidies and give families with children a rebate on their income tax.
Mr Juppe is seeking to win his centre-right Les Republicains party's nomination in primaries in November.
Nicolas Sarkozy, Juppe's main opponent within the conservative party and France's president in 2007-2012, has said he would also scrap the 35-hour working week and the wealth tax and has promised to cut income tax by 10 per cent.
Socialist President Francois Hollande has said he will decide at the end of 2016 whether to seek a second five-year term, though he is widely expected to do so despite opinion polls that show the unpopular leader losing the election.