Macron Stands by Contested Pension Plan, Despite Pressure From Marathon Strike
PARIS — Under pressure to resolve a crippling transport strike that is weighing on the lives of his countrymen, President Emmanuel Macron of France insisted Tuesday night that he was not giving up on a pensions overhaul that has brought thousands of workers into the streets.
If France was waiting for Mr. Macron to suggest an exit strategy for ending the onerous strike — and French media has been full of such speculation in recent days — it would have been waiting in vain: The president’s main message, in the traditional New Year’s Eve address to France, was that he was standing firm.
The strike entered its 27th day Tuesday, and is now longer than the benchmark 1995 shutdown that fatally weakened the government at the time. Most trains are still canceled across France, the subway in Paris is largely shuttered, the capital’s streets often resemble a giant parking lot, and unions look as determined as ever to face the government down.
Mr. Macron nonetheless hinted that there could be possible changes to his plan in order to get the striking rail and subway workers back to work. In his speech, he urged his own prime minister to find “a path of rapid compromise, while respecting the principles I have mentioned,” to end the strike.
Last year, Mr. Macron used the annual New Year’s address to try to bring calm after weeks of violent Yellow Vest protests motivated by inequality, the cost of fuel and other issues.
This time he is facing a more intractable social protest, because the strike is more organized and better led. Union leaders have been invigorated by an unexpected boost in their strength, and the strike movement appears to have the support of a majority of the French, despite the travel inconveniences.
Still, on two essential points that continue to arouse the anger of the most hard-line unions — the ones leading the strike — Mr. Macron showed no sign of giving ground.
He insisted that his measures will end France’s patchwork system of 42 different pension plans, replacing it with a uniform system based on points accumulated over time. The conversion to points was being done in the name of “justice and social progress,” Mr. Macron said.
“One euro contributed will give the same rights to everybody, from the first hour of work. That’s far from the case today,” he said. “We want everybody to benefit from a worthy pension, especially those who have been forgotten by the present system.”
And he repeated the word “responsibility,” which has come to represent a red flag for many unions; for Mr. Macron’s government, it means that people must work longer, and the retirement age will be effectively pushed from 62 to 64 for many. With the ratio of workers to retirees in decline, officials argue that the pensions system can’t avoid crippling deficit unless working lives are lengthened.
“I know that change often upsets. But fear shouldn’t mean inaction,” Mr. Macron said. “There’s too much to do.”
Mr. Macron remained vague in important points, some analysts said. “He said, ‘find an agreement,’ but he didn’t say where to give ground,” said Chloé Morin, a public opinion expert at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a Paris think tank.
“He’s cultivating a posture, a position, of determination,” she said, noting that Mr. Macron delivered his speech Tuesday night standing up, in contrast to the sitting position of his predecessors.
In practice, though, Mr. Macron has been giving small concessions to different professional groups all month, perhaps indicating that larger concessions could be possible. For the police, he partly scrapped the increased retirement age. For railway and subway workers, he is allowing a later start with the new system. Airline pilots will continue to be able to retire at 60. Dancers at the Paris Opera, who can retire at 42, will continue under the present pensions system, except for those hired after 2022.
“They’ve been piling up the concessions,” said Ms. Morin, noting that this strategy could be perceived as giving up on the larger project.
In any case, these compromises have not calmed the atmosphere of confrontation with the unions, which in recent days have accused the French government of letting the situation fester in order to turn public opinion against the strikers. Mr. Macron’s ministers in turn have accused the unions of banking on a strategy of intimidation to keep their rank and file in line.
With the number of strikers in slow but steady decline — though maintaining a critical mass to cripple transit — tensions have been mounting. On Tuesday, a video widely disseminated on Twitter showed striking Paris subway workers harassing a colleague who chose to go to work.
Early reactions to Mr. Macron’s speech from his political rivals, and the unions, were hostile, foreshadowing a continuing hardening of positions.
“These weren’t New Year’s good wishes, but a declaration of war on millions of Frenchmen who are rejecting his reform,” said the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon on Twitter. “It seemed like an extraterrestrial speaking,” he said.
“It’s the same formulas we’ve been hearing for two years,” the union leader Yves Veyrier said on BFM-TV. “He hasn’t convinced anybody with his points-based system.”
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