French President Emmanuel Macron has given a defiant defence of his decision to force through a rise in the pension age, in the face of protests across France and two no-confidence votes.
“This reform isn’t a luxury, it’s not a pleasure, it’s a necessity,” he said.
Protesters have been emboldened by the government’s use of constitutional power to ram through reforms without a vote in the National Assembly.
A ninth round of strikes and national protests will take place on Thursday.
There have been six nights of demonstrations involving hundreds of arrests in a number of cities.
Bins that have been left overflowing by refuse workers have been set alight and 13% of petrol stations are running short of fuel because of blockades at oil refineries; almost half the pumps in the Bouches-du-Rhône area of the south have run dry.
The protests have also cast a cloud over King Charles’s imminent visit to France. Green MP Sandrine Rousseau called for the trip to be cancelled: “Is the priority really to receive Charles III at Versailles? Something is taking place within French society… the priority is to go and talk to society which is rising up.”
Under pressure to lower tensions, Mr Macron made his first public remarks on the escalating pensions row in an interview broadcast on two of the main French TV channels at Wednesday lunchtime.
The French president said protesters had a right to take to the streets and their anger had been taken into account, but it was not acceptable when they resorted to violence without any rules whatsoever.
“Do you think I enjoy passing this reform? No,” he said. Looking to bring in the rise in the pension age by the end of 2023 he said he had a responsibility not to leave the issue alone despite its unpopularity.
France has a pay-as-you-go pension system whereby workers pay for retirees. Mr Macron pointed out that when he began working there were 10 million French pensioners and now there were 17 million.
“The longer we wait, the more [the deficit] will deteriorate.” He said it was time to move, reviving dialogue with the unions and all the political forces that were ready to do so. He outlined a list of priorities for the rest of his presidency: reforming immigration laws, building 200 new barracks for military police, schools, health and the environment.
President Macron’s decision to use the 49:3 clause to force through a rise in the pension age from 62 to 64 and prolong pension contributions is considered his biggest political risk since he took on the yellow-vest protesters in the first term of his presidency.
But at that point he had a healthy majority in parliament, and now he leads a minority government and the retirement reform is highly unpopular.
Political commentator Bruno Cautrès of Sciences Po university told RTL Radio that with six years of office behind him the president no longer had quite the same “agility” as he had at the start and that his latest remarks would go down badly with the unions.
Union leaders along with the far-right National Rally and far-left France Unbowed parties have united in anger at Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne’s move to ram through the legislation.
Philippe Martinez, the head of the far-left CGT union, said the president’s interview had taken millions of protesters for fools in claiming his reforms were the only alternative. Laurent Berger of the more moderate CFDT accused Mr Macron of rewriting history and lying to hide his failure to secure a majority in parliament.
Union leaders said up to half of primary school teachers would go on strike as part of Thursday’s day of action but demonstrations were continuing on Wednesday, including outside the southern port of Marseille-Fos.
Marine Le Pen of National Rally said she would not play “any part in putting out the fire” as the president was the only one who had the keys to a political crisis he had himself created.
During his TV interview, Mr Macron emphasised his continued backing for his beleaguered prime minister: “She has my confidence to lead this government team.”
Ahead of his appearance, he reportedly told representatives of his party at the Elysée Palace there would be no change of course. He ruled out a reshuffle of the government, a dissolution of parliament or any other dramatic move.
Mr Macron told colleagues he had no regrets about forcing through the reforms, as it was “always a good thing if you want to be respectful of our institutions”.
He and the prime minister have argued that the reforms have gone through 175 hours of debate in parliament. Mr Macron pointed out that some parties had backed the reform as it went through parliament but then supported a motion of no confidence, which narrowly failed.
The government realised ahead of a vote in parliament on Monday that it had failed to secure enough votes, particularly among the right-wing Republicans.
Asked during his TV interview if he had any regrets, President Macron said that if he had one it was in not succeeding in convincing people of the necessity of the reform: “But I don’t live with regret, I live with will, tenacity, engagement, because I love our country and people.”
Source : BBC