Macron stands firm on pension bill as protests escalate

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France’s new law raising the pension age is necessary and will come into force later this year, President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday, showing no sign of relenting in the face of escalating protests across the country.

“Do you think I enjoy doing this (pension) reform? No,” Macron said in an interview aired on France’s two biggest TV stations. “But there are not a hundred ways to balance the accounts… this reform is necessary.”

Protests against the bill, which lifts the retirement age by two years to 64, have drawn huge crowds in rallies organised by unions since January.

Most have been peaceful, but anger has mounted since the government pushed the bill through parliament without a vote last week. The past six nights have seen fierce demonstrations in Paris and elsewhere with rubbish bins set ablaze and scuffles with police.

Protesters on Wednesday also blocked train stations in the southern cities of Nice and Toulouse.

The latest wave of protests, alongside rolling strikes that disrupt oil depots, public transport and garbage collection, represents the most serious challenge to the centrist president’s authority since the “Yellow Vest” revolt four years ago.

The ongoing protests could impact a planned state visit next week of Britain’s King Charles, a Buckingham Palace source said.

Macron decries violence

Macron said he respected the right to peaceful protests but “extreme violence” was not acceptable.

“We’ll make sure a life that is as normal as possible can resume in the face of the few that block things,” he said.

Saying he had “no regrets,” the centrist president however added that he wanted to improve his fraught relationship with labour unions and involve them more in future decisions.

Aides had said ahead of the interview that it was aimed at “calming things down.” But initial reactions showed it might have quite the opposite effect.

“Lies!,” the moderate, reform-minded Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, France’s largest union, tweeted, accusing Macron of “rewriting history” after he said unions had not offered an alternative to his pension bill.

Philippe Martinez, who leads the more hardline CGT union, told French media that Macron was mocking workers with what he called an “outlandish” interview.

More strikes 

Labour unions have announced another nationwide day of strikes and demonstrations on Thursday.

“We don’t want this law and we’ll fight until it is withdrawn,” pensioner Jacques Borensztejn said at a rally on Tuesday in Paris.

While the opposition has called for Macron to fire his prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, who has been at the forefront of the pension reform, Macron backed her and said that he had tasked her with further widening the majority.

Macron’s camp lost its majority in the lower house of parliament in elections last year.

“She (Borne) has my trust to lead this government team,” he said.

Polls show a wide majority of French are opposed to the pension legislation, as well as the government’s decision to push the bill through parliament without a vote.

Seeking to regain the political initiative after his government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote earlier this week, Macron said he wanted to make sure companies share more of their profits with workers. However, he did not spell out how the government would achieve this.