BRUSSELS/PARIS French President Emmanuel Macron urged the European Commission on Thursday to do more to curb an influx of low-paid east Europeans working on temporary assignment in France, warning that it was sapping support for the European Union.
After meeting EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels for the first time since defeating anti-EU nationalist Marine Le Pen to win the presidency on May 7, Macron told reporters that he was determined to reform France to revive its economy but that the EU should also protect welfare standards.
"Alongside this France that reforms, that transforms, that overhauls, we need a Europe that protects," Macron said.
EU governments are divided, broadly speaking between poor east and rich west, on amendments to rules under which, say, Bulgarian truck drivers or Lithuanian bricklayers can be posted to France for limited periods and paid at eastern European wage levels which are often below guaranteed minimums in the west.
The so-called "posted workers" legislation faces a new round of decisions next month.
"When someone works in one country, for the same job, he must be paid the same salary," Macron said.
The pay gap with east European workers, particularly in France, undermined the "idea of Europe" and fed extremism, Macron said. "That's partly what Brexit fed on," the French leader added.
The issues of seconded workers and "social dumping" took center-stage in France's presidential campaign last month after Le Pen used the relocation of a Whirlpool factory in northern France to Poland to paint Macron as a globalist who did not care about workers.
An ardent defender of globalization as well as European integration, Macron refused then to be drawn into promising he would prevent the company moving its production.
But since his election he has sought to drum up support in Europe for what he calls a "protection agenda", which includes more stringent rules on welfare standards, a "European Buy Act" and a reinforcement of Europe's external borders.
"We need to show Europe is efficient, otherwise the temptation to get back to the national level, to national protectionism will become stronger and stronger," a source close to Macron said. "That's the message of our election."
French officials have taken heart from German Chancellor Angela Merkel's positive reaction to Macron's plan and the idea of creating a level playing field between European countries and other international trade partners.
But Macron is likely to face resistance from Poland, eastern Europe's biggest country and one of the main beneficiaries of posted or seconded workers.
The French president has also threatened to push for EU sanctions against the Polish government on issues such as perceived infringements to the rule of law, which has infuriated Warsaw.
Macron will meet his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda for a working dinner in Brussels later on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier; Editing by Adrian Croft)