French unions dig in after Macron defends pension reform

March 23, 2023

Blockades at oil refineries will also continue, potentially creating severe fuel shortages

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Protesters march during a demonstration, a few days after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using article 49.3 of the constitution, in Bordeaux, southwestern France, on March 22, 2023. — AFP

PARIS: France braced for more transport woes and a new day of nationwide protests on Thursday after a defiant President Emmanuel Macron pledged to implement a contentious pensions overhaul by year-end.

The 45-year-old leader on Wednesday said he was prepared to accept unpopularity because the bill raising the retirement age by two years was "necessary" and "in the general interest of the country".

Acting on Macron's instructions, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne invoked an article in the constitution a week ago to adopt the reform without a parliamentary vote.

The government on Monday narrowly survived a no-confidence motion, but the outrage has spawned the biggest domestic crisis of Macron's second term.

People demonstrate against the law reforming the pensions system at Nice's railway station, south-eastern France, on March 22, 2023. — AFP

The centrist president was first elected in 2017 with pledges to radically reform France.

Macron's comments during a lunchtime interview on Wednesday, when most people would have been at work, have incensed union workers.

Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-line CGT union, said that the remarks showed "disdain for the thousands of people who have been protesting".

Protests were planned across the country on Thursday in the latest day of nationwide stoppages that began in mid-January against the pension changes, which include raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64.

Half of all high-speed trains would be cancelled, national railway operator SNCF said, as union sources reported around a third of staff would be striking.

At least half the trains into Paris from the suburbs would not be running.

Paris municipal garbage collectors pledged to uphold a rolling strike, that has seen thousands of tonnes of the rubbish pile up in the streets, until Monday.

Police officers look at dockers blocking the entrance of the oil depot in Lorient, western France, on March 22, 2023, a day after the oil depot of Lorient was unblocked by the police. — AFP

Blockades at oil refineries will also continue, potentially creating severe fuel shortages.

Excessive force?

A survey on Sunday showed Macron's personal approval rating at just 28%, its lowest level since the height of the anti-government "Yellow Vest" protest movement in 2018-2019.

The tensions have also raised questions over whether France can host the UK's King Charles III when he arrives Sunday for his first foreign state visit as monarch.

While France's Constitutional Court still needs to give the final word on the reform, Macron told the TF1 and France 2 channels in the interview that the changes needed to "come into force by the end of the year".

The government has said the reform is necessary to keep the system from slipping into deficit and to bring France in line with its European neighbours, where the legal retirement age is typically higher.

"The longer we wait, the more [the deficit] will deteriorate. This reform is necessary, it does not make me happy," he added.

Critics say the changes are unfair for people who start working at a young age in physically challenging jobs, and for women who interrupt their careers to raise children.

Protesters gather around a fire sculpture that reads '49.3' during a demonstration, a few days after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote on March 21, 2023. — AFP

The government's imposition of the reform in the face of widespread opposition has sparked spontaneous protests in recent days, leading to hundreds of arrests and accusations of heavy-handed tactics by police.

Lawyers, magistrates and some politicians accused police of making arbitrary arrests in an attempt to stifle the demonstrations, although this has been rejected by Paris police.

Amnesty International expressed alarm "about the widespread use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests reported in several media outlets".

Illegitimate crowds

On Tuesday, Macron told allies at a meeting: "The crowd, whatever form it takes, has no legitimacy in the face of the people who express themselves through their elected representatives" in parliament.

Asked in the interview to explain this remark, he said organised protests were "legitimate", but violence should be condemned and blockages should not impede normal activity.

Referring to the insurrections by supporters of the ex-US and Brazilian presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro after election defeats, he added: "We cannot accept rebels or factions."

Prominent Green MP Sandrine Rousseau said the visit by King Charles should be cancelled.

It was "unbelievable" that the president would dine with the monarch at the Versailles Palace outside Paris "while the people are protesting in the streets", she told BFM television.

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