President Emmanuel Macron on Monday staunchly defended his widely unpopular pension reform but said he regretted that no consensus had been found on the change.
Addressing France for the first time since signing the reform into law over the weekend, Macron said he understood the “anger” felt by the French over the raising of the retirement age.
Macron signed the legislation early Saturday, just hours after its banner change to hike the retirement age from 62 to 64 had been validated by the constitutional court, prompting accusations he was smuggling the law through in the dead of night.
After three months of protests and strikes, the left and unions have vowed not to give in and warned of mass protests on the May 1 Labour Day.
Polls have consistently recorded a majority of French opposed to the reform, which the government rammed through parliament using a controversial mechanism to avoid a vote.
Speaking from the Elysee Palace, Macron defended the reform as “necessary” and insisted “doing nothing” was not a solution.
“Has this reform been accepted? Obviously not. And despite months of consultations, no consensus could be found and I regret it.”
Noting the protests that have raged against the reform, he added: “No one, especially not me, can remain deaf to this demand for social justice.”
“The answer can be neither in rigidity, nor in extremism,” said the president, adding his “door will always be open” to talks with the unions.
– ‘Within slapping range’ –
Macron’s personal popularity ratings have eroded with some analysts suggesting he has given a head start to far-right leader Marine Le Pen down the long path to 2027 elections.
Unions have meanwhile spurned an invitation to the Elysee for talks.
Opponents from across the board after Macron’s speech said it had only reinforced concerns about how the reform was handled.
“He chose to turn his back on the French and ignore their suffering,” said far-right figurehead and former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
Hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said Macron was “totally out of touch with reality” while CFDT union leader Laurent Berger added that it contained “nothing concrete” for the labour movement.
Macron said he had tasked his government led by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to lead 100 days of action “at the service of France”.
The prime minister should lay out a roadmap in the next days with the first results to be announced on France’s national day on July 14, Macron said.
He promised “major announcements” during May including action against juvenile delinquency and also “reinforcing controls against illegal immigration”.
Macron earlier had lunch with Borne and then met key figures from his party including ultra-loyal rising stars tipped for promotions such as Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu, 36, and Budget Minister Gabriel Attal, 34.
– ‘Far from finished’ –
But no cabinet reshuffle is planned in the near future, several sources close to the presidency told AFP.
The president, often consumed with diplomacy, will this week also make at least one trip within France after criticism even from within his own camp that he is failing to connect with people.
“I want Macron to spend more time on the ground,” said one minister, who asked not to be named. Even “within range of being slapped”.
His wife Brigitte, in a rare public comment, insisted that the presidential couple were “not isolated” despite it being a “complicated period for the French”.
The crisis also comes at a time of increasing challenges on the international stage for Macron, who faced accusations of cosying up to China on a visit to Beijing last week.
Macron, 45, came to power in 2017 promising reform and a fresh new politics. But opponents accuse him of increasingly reclusive and anti-democratic behaviour.
“Emmanuel Macron is far from finished from having to deal with the social and political crisis, which he continues to dangerously stir up,” said Le Monde newspaper in an editorial.
The daily noted Le Pen was the only politician whose popularity has been notably boosted by the crisis, while trust in France’s democratic institutions has fallen.
“The cost of the pensions reform appears to be exorbitant,” it said.
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(This story has not been edited by News18 staff and is published from a syndicated news agency feed)