Emmanuel Macron, France president, defended his unpopular plan to raise the retirement age on Wednesday as being key to repairing the public finances but acknowleged public anger over his government’s decision to pass the law without a parliamentary vote.
“Do you think I enjoy doing this reform? No,” said Macron in a televised interview. “But there are not a hundred ways to balance the accounts . . . this reform is not a luxury or a pleasure, it’s a necessity for the country.”
It was the first time Macron had spoken publicly since his government forced the pension bill through parliament and survived the resulting no-confidence votes.
Since then, scattered small-scale protests have erupted nightly in cities from Paris to Rennes, leading to more than 800 arrests. Labour unions have vowed to keep up the pressure with a nationwide demonstration set for Thursday.
Officials are monitoring the situation closely — 12,000 police officers will be deployed on Thursday — because they fear a return to the chaotic days of the gilets jaunes protests of 2018.
Macron said he respected the constitutional rights of citizens to demonstrate peacefully, but condemned the actions of some protesters who threatened MPs and defaced their offices. “We will not tolerate any outbursts,” he said.
He appeared to compare those protesters with those who stormed the US Capitol in 2021, saying: “When the US experienced what it went through on Capitol Hill, when Brazil experienced what it experienced, when you had the extreme violence in Germany, in the Netherlands or sometimes here, we must say: we respect, we listen . . . but we cannot accept rebels and factions.”
Strikes are continuing at rubbish collection sites and petrol refineries and on public transport services. Dock workers in Marseille blocked access to France’s biggest commercial port on Wednesday, preventing cars from entering.
In response, the government has begun requisitioning workers to clear the 10,000 tonnes of rubbish in Paris and restart petrol deliveries in the south.
Macron defended both the content of the pensions reform — which will raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and require people to work for 43 years to receive a full pension — and the method used to enact it.
He also confirmed the changes would take effect by the end of the year, as long as the law cleared a final review by the constitutional court in the coming weeks.
Macron has long argued that the change is needed to protect the viability of France’s pension system, which relies on current workers to fund payments to retirees. He warned that, otherwise, deficits would balloon as the population aged.
“When I started working, there were 10mn retirees; today there are 17mn and by 2030 there will be 20mn,” he said. “Do you really think we can continue with the same rules?”
The president batted away a question as to whether he would reshuffle the government or name a new prime minister. He said the government led by prime minister Élisabeth Borne had his “confidence”, and that he had asked her to work on a new legislative agenda that could help increase support in parliament.
Philippe Martinez, leader of the hardline CGT labour union, criticised Macron for not listening to the anger being expressed in the streets. “The interview is bizarre . . . [and shows] contempt for the millions of people demonstrating . . . there has been no answer,” he said at a union meeting, according to Agence France-Presse.
Laurent Berger, who heads the more moderate CFDT union, warned that Macron’s stance amounted to a provocation. He called on “workers to turn out en masse” at Thursday’s protest to show their discontent.
A flash poll from Harris Interactive showed that half of respondents said Macron’s interview would add fuel to the protests, while only 9 per cent said it would calm them.
Earlier polls showed two-thirds of French people are opposed to raising the retirement age, although workers in other European countries tend to retire later and with lower pensions than those received by French retirees.
France devotes 13 per cent of its national output annually to pensions compared with an EU average of 10.3 per cent. The €330bn spent last year on retiree benefits dwarfed education spending of €54bn and the €41bn spent on defence.