French President Emmanuel Macron is seen on screen as he speaks during a TV interview from the Elysee Palace, in Paris, on March 22, 2023.
Ludovic Marin | Afp | Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday staunchly defended his reforms to the pension system, but said the government could have communicated its policy better.
“Do you think I enjoy doing this reform? No,” he said in a televised interview with channels TF1 and France 2, his first public statement to the country since forcing the bill through parliament without a vote.
The move has intensified widespread protests across the country that have resulted in hundreds of people being detained after clashes with police.
“I could sweep the dust under the rug like many before,” Macron said, continuing that the system was no longer balanced and the number of retirees was due to be 20 million by the 2030s. “The longer we wait the worse the situation will get.”
Macron said the bill needed to be implemented by the end of the year. It still needs to be reviewed by France’s constitutional court.
If passed, the key changes will see the national retirement age raised from 62 to 64 and the number of years required for someone to work before receiving a full pension go to 43.
Unions fiercely oppose the bill, which they argue disproportionally impacts manual workers, women and lower-paid workers while corporations and the ultra-wealthy have benefited under Macron’s business-friendly reforms.
Strikes have been carried out by teachers, transport workers and refinery workers, who have blocked fuel deliveries in some areas. Industrial action by garbage collectors has led to mounds of trash piling up in Paris in a striking symbol of the discontent. A major strike and protests are set to take place on Thursday.
Pedestrians walk past full waste bins in Paris’ 5th district as rubbish collectors strike against pension reforms, leaving many streets in the capital piled with stinking waste on March 17, 2023.
Bertrand Guay | Afp | Getty Images
Macron said Wednesday he understood there was a “sense of injustice” and that working people felt they were the ones being asked to put in more effort while businesses profited.
“There is this degree of cynicism when we have large corporations generating super profits and using that money to buy back their own shares,” he said, according to a France24 translation.
“I’m going to ask the government to work to an exceptional contribution so that that money, when there are super profits, companies that are prepared to buy back their own shares, that their workers should benefit from that.”
He cited the government’s tax on energy company profits to fund a price cap, but stopped short of committing to a future tax on “super profits,” saying “we have to find the right system, they must pay out more to their employees, there must be more contribution to this effort.”
Macron also said he wanted to encourage people on benefits into the labor market through better support on childcare, transport and housing.
Members of parliament of the left hold placards and sing the Marseillaise, French national anthem, as French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne arrives to deliver a speech on pensions reform bill at the National Assembly in Paris, France, March 16, 2023.
Pascal Rossignol | Reuters
Opposition lawmakers on the left and right wings oppose the pension system changes, as do some in the centrist and center-right parties that generally back Macron.
However, they failed to pass two no-confidence motions against the government in the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, on Monday. A no-confidence motion could have led to the ouster of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who has faced intense criticism in France for enacting the use of Article 49.3, which can pass a bill through the National Assembly without a majority vote.
Macron, who has another four years of his presidential term, would likely have had to hold new parliamentary elections. These could have further weakened his ability to enact future policies; yet he has already expended significant political capital on the pension reforms.
A poll in the Journal du Dimanche over the weekend put his approval rating at 28%, the lowest since the gilet jaunes protests in 2019. Meanwhile an Elabe poll on Monday found that 68% of respondents wanted the no-confidence vote to pass and 69% believed the use of Article 49.3 was a denial of democracy.
Striking members of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) union set up fires and blockades en route to the industrial and port area of Fos-sur-Mer, France, on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. France released strategic stockpiles of oil products this month as the latest round of strike action over pension reforms hobbles the nation’s fuel distribution network.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images
In Wednesday’s interview, Macron said he respected unions and people had a legitimate right to protest, and the government should take account of their views.
But he condemned the use of violence and threats of attacks against MPs and mayors, and — comparing the situation to the riots at the U.S. Capitol, protests in Brazil and the Netherlands and past protests in France, said “we cannot accept factions who are unruly.”
He also accused unions of failing to negotiate or compromise over changes to the pension system, saying the government had been told “no reform.” Macron has intended to raise the pension age since he took office in 2017, and a previous set of changes to the pension system announced in 2019 were scrapped.
He said the current plan was a result of the parliamentary process and has been adopted in the senate, the upper house of parliament.
“I’m doing it out of a sense of responsibility,” he told the French broadcasters.