French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday forcefully defended his move to push through legislation raising the retirement age, which has ignited protests and strikes around the country.
“We must advance because it is in the ultimate interest of the nation,” he said in an interview with TF1 and France 2 TV from the Élysée Palace.
He said that the pension bill would “pursue its democratic path” and should be in effect by the end of the year but that it now awaited a decision by the Constitutional Council.
The plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 has drawn such ire across France that protests have turned to clashes amid a heavy police presence. Strikes have paralyzed trains and shut down schools. And walkouts by trash collectors left piles of garbage in bags rotting in the streets of Paris.
The government’s use of executive powers last week to move the legislation forward without a vote in the Parliament’s lower house escalated a simmering crisis.
Macron, 45, defended the raising of the age as the right way to ensure the survival of France’s pension system, in part to reflect rising life expectancy.
“The more we wait, the more it will be degraded,” Macron said Wednesday.
He struck a defiant tone. He did not stand to gain from the effort politically, he said, noting he could not put himself up for reelection after his current term. “Do you think it gives me pleasure to pass this reform? No,” he said. “I’m choosing the general interest. … And if I must shoulder unpopularity, then I will.”
Although the French government survived two no-confidence votes in Parliament this week, the backlash against the pension reform plan has only grown, with some protests continuing Wednesday. Dock workers on Wednesday blocked port access in Marseille, France’s main trading port, as part of an effort to paralyze the economy. The blockage is expected to last until Friday. In Lyon, railway workers lit flares and marched with a banner reading “until the withdrawal” — an implicit pledge to keep up the protests until the government nixes the policy.
Unions already had planned a fresh nationwide mobilization for Thursday, and Macron’s comments are unlikely to appease protesters. Thursday’s action could see up to half of the country’s primary school teachers go on strike, along with significant disruptions to trains and public transportation in large cities.
The French president maintained that he respects unions and those voicing opposition but condemned violent incidents and what he described as threats against officials. He said road blockades must be lifted so that the country can go “back to normal as soon as possible.”
Macron implied that the unrest in France could foment political violence similar to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — a “scandalous” suggestion, Philippe Martinez, the secretary general of the hard-line CGT union confederation, told reporters.
Protests have been reported in cities including Toulouse, Marseille and Lyon over the past week. Police fired tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators gathered at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, and some protesters set trash cans on fire or threw fireworks in other parts of the country.
Authorities detained hundreds of protesters in recent days, although few were charged, French media reported, and the Interior Ministry said 94 officers had been injured in confrontations since last Thursday.
Macron, who is nearly a year into his second five-year term, lost an absolute parliamentary majority in legislative elections last summer.
Although the pension plan got the backing of the Senate, the upper house of Parliament, it met fierce criticism on the left and far right in the National Assembly, or the lower house, which had been set to vote on the bill later.
With the backing of some center-right lawmakers in doubt, the government circumvented a vote and avoided the risk of a defeat.
The ensuing no-confidence votes, which failed, had raised the prospect of a resignation of Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, who was appointed by Macron. He said Wednesday that “she has my confidence to lead this government.”
The pension bill is facing a review by the Constitutional Council before it can be signed into law.
Some union leaders have warned of broader social unrest reminiscent of the 2018 Yellow Vest movement in which regular clashes with police lasted until coronavirus pandemic restrictions were imposed. That movement triggered by proposed tax increases widened to other grievances including over social inequality.
Macron said the country had changed since his last term, as it grappled with the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and rising inflation, and that the state had spent tens of billions of dollars on protections. “We are coming from a situation that rested on a form of delusion, and so, now, we are engaging the country about its future,” he said.
Political opponents on the left and right blasted Macron’s remarks Wednesday as out of touch with public sentiment. Leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon accused Macron of expressing “contempt” for workers and criticized Macron’s comments to lawmakers the day before suggesting “the crowd” was illegitimate.
“The crowds that assemble are not indistinct masses of protesters, but people who clearly know what they want,” Mélenchon said on French TV.
Macron “doesn’t understand the French,” Olivier Faure, leader of the Socialist Party, wrote on Twitter. “Presents them as lazy people addicted to government aid. Dismisses the unions. Insults our history in refusing a legitimacy to public expression. Macron empties the jerry can on a blaze he had already lit.”
In the interview, “when he should have stitched up the national fabric, he continued to want to unstitch it,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen said in televised remarks afterward.
If the retirement age were to remain fixed, there would be 1.2 taxpaying workers to support each retiree in 2070, down from 1.7 in 2020, the government says. Critics of the raising of the retirement age have given a range of arguments against it, including frustration with working conditions and concerns that blue-collar workers will be hit hardest. The reform has touched a particular nerve in a society that prizes work-life balance, and where many consider retirement to be a cherished phase of life.
“I am at work to be able to do what needs to be done,” Macron said. “I am sure we will be able to unite for the future of the country.”
Rick Noack contributed to this report.