French president Emmanuel Macron has said his flagship pension reforms “will be carried out” but called upon his government to find a speedy compromise with unions as punishing public sector strikes continued through Christmas and New Year.
“I am aware that changes can often be unsettling. But worries cannot lead to inaction because there is too much to do”, Mr Macron said in his traditional New Year’s eve address to the nation. “I will not give in to pessimism or paralysis.”
He added: “With the trade unions and employers’ organisations who want to find one, I expect the government of [prime minister] Edouard Philippe to find the way to a rapid compromise.”
A new round of talks is scheduled for January 7 ahead of a planned day of national protest on the ninth.
The strikes, which are entering their fifth week, are over Mr Macron’s plan to replace France’s existing 42 pension schemes — some of which bring early retirement and generous benefits — with a unified points-based system touted as fairer and more financially sustainable.
In response to the speech, far-left opposition politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted that it had not been a New Year’s address but “a declaration of war to million of French people who refuse his reform.”
Mr Macron — who struck a conciliatory but firm tone and defended his reforms and his record on job creation during his address — wants to encourage French people to keep working until 64, past the retirement age of 62, incentivised by the prospect of a full pension.
Even more moderate union leaders are angered by this proposal, which they think amounts to a de facto increase in the retirement age. The government has previously suggested a delay to raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 if another way can be found to balance the books. It has also offered concessions to certain sectors as it looks to take the sting out of the strike movement.
Despite a call for a truce by the French president earlier this month, the holidays brought little respite as the strikes continued while union leaders and the government attacked each other in the press.
The head of the leftwing CGT, Philippe Martinez, said in French weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche that Mr Macron “wants to be the man of the new world, but he is copying Margaret Thatcher”, referring to the former UK prime minister who fought Britain’s labour unions. In the same paper, the secretary of state for transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, accused Mr Martinez and his union of obstructionism and intimidation.
Support for the strikes, which have caused gridlock in Paris, has softened slightly over the weeks but in polls taken just before Christmas a slim majority either supported or was in sympathy with the protests.
While transport remains severely disrupted due to a larger number of key staff walking out, only 7.7 per cent of staff at state railway company SNCF were on strike on Tuesday, compared to more than 50 per cent when the protests began on December 5.
It was the second year in a row that Mr Macron had to address a nation roiled in protest against his policies. Last year the French president faced the gilets jaunes — the now largely depleted anti-government street protest movement that forced billions of euros in spending concessions from Mr Macron and still animates political discussion.