Syria 'chemical attack': France's President Macron says he has proof

 Train workers, hospitals staff, students, retirees, lawyers and magistrates: they are all protesting the way President Emmanuel Macron’s government is changing France.
Macron is appearing on national television Thursday to respond to the daily concerns of the French and defend his economic policies and tax changes, which he says are aimed at modernizing the country.
In what some portray as a fight for the identity of France, Macron wants to reduce the role of the state and inject vitality in the economy by trimming guarantees for workers and increasing competition among companies, among other things. His critics say he is favoring the rich and eroding workers’ hard-won labor rights with moves that risk increasing wealth disparity in a country whose national motto includes the word “equality.”
The government’s strategy is to go fast and hope protest actions lose momentum.
Last year, despite protests, the government used a special, accelerated procedure to push a labor bill through parliament. The law is perceived by many as weakening France’s famed worker protections.
This spring, the government pushed farther, initiating a series of changes to tax retirees more and employees less, cut jobs in some hospitals, reorganize the justice system and apply a new university admissions system — all prompting protests.
But Macron’s biggest challenge as president so far is from unions resisting a bill aimed at preparing the national railway company SNCF to open up to competition.
It has prompted nationwide strikes that have massively disrupted train traffic, and unions plan periodic rolling strikes through June. Legislators begin debating the bill this week.
Polls show the majority of the French approve the changes to rail service, but a growing minority supports the strikes. At the same time, surveys suggest the French want the government to avoid prolonged strikes, even if it means making concessions.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said arrangements can be made but the purposes of the bill cannot change.
“I get messages of support for the government from the French people; we have to stick with it to the end,” he told Le Parisien newspaper Sunday.
Junior minister for Parliamentary relations Christophe Castaner on Wednesday lamented past failures by French governments to carry through on promised reforms, often in the face of protests. He argued the government draws its legitimacy from Macron’s election on a reform agenda last year.
The strikes and protests echo 1995, when massive general strikes in the public and private sectors forced President Jacques Chirac’s government to abandon its economic reform agenda.
This week, protesting students are occupying and partially blocking several public universities. They fear that a bill to reorganize university admissions will threaten the current system, under which all high school graduates have free access to public universities.
The Elysee Palace so far considers the protest movement as relatively limited compared with the 1.6 million students enrolled in French universities.
But Macron is worried enough to schedule two unusually long television interviews to explain his position. After his one-hour appearance Thursday, he will spend two hours answering questions Sunday from BFM television and online investigative site Mediapart.
The current protests come as France prepares to mark 50 years since May 1968, a pivotal moment when occupations in universities, confrontations between police and students and other strikes and protests paralyzed France’s economy. The period is considered a cultural, social and moral turning point toward a more modern country.
He said he would decide "in due course" whether to strike Syria.
Western states are thought to be preparing for missile strikes in response to the alleged attack.
In Russia, Syria's main military ally, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged against "any steps which could lead to an escalation of tensions".
US President Donald Trump, who said on Wednesday that missiles were "coming", has now tweeted that he "never said when".
It "could be very soon or not so soon at all", said the president, who has cancelled a planned trip to stay in the US with his defence secretary, and who has been canvassing support for strikes from the leaders of other countries France and the UK.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is due to hold a cabinet meeting to discuss the UK's response. Sources have told the BBC she may be ready to join military action without seeking parliamentary consent first.
The French leader previously said any strikes would target the Syrian government's "chemical capabilities".
He did not give the source of his information but said: "We have proof that last week chemical weapons, at least chlorine, were used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad."
Asked in a TV interview whether France would join strikes on Syria, he said: "We will need to take decisions in due course, when we judge it most useful and effective.
"France will not allow any escalation that could harm stability in the region," he said. But, he added, "regimes that think they can do everything they want, including the worst things that violate international law, cannot be allowed to act."
Activists, rescue workers and medics say dozens of people died when government aircraft dropped bombs filled with toxic chemicals on the formerly rebel-held town of Douma on Saturday.
But President Bashar al-Assad's government - which receives military backing from Russia - denies being behind any chemical attack.
The Syrian-American Medical Society (Sams), which operates in rebel-held areas, said more than 500 people had been treated for symptoms "indicative of exposure to a chemical agent".
On Wednesday, the UN's World Health Organization demanded access to verify reports from its partners, which include Sams, that 70 people had died - including 43 who showed "symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals".
Russia has described the reports of the chemical attack as a "provocation" designed to justify Western intervention against its ally, and accused militant rebels of fabricating it.