French President Emmanuel Macron gives an interview from the Élysée Palace on March 22, 2023. © Sébastien Bozon, AFP
French President Emmanuel Macron broke his silence on the bitter pension battle roiling the country in a televised interview on Wednesday, stressing that his contentious reform raising the pension age is necessary and will come into force later this year.
Macron, whose approval rating has sunk to below 30%, was aiming to steady the ship and appease the anger that has swept the country since he rammed his deeply unpopular pension reform through parliament without a vote.
Dismissing calls for a snap election or a referendum, he said the plan to raise France’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 would continue on its “democratic path” and come into force by the end of 2023.
The French president also reaffirmed his faith in Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, whose government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote triggered by Macron’s use of special executive powers to bypass parliament.
>> Bitter pension battle turns to democratic crisis as Macron bypasses French parliament
Here are the key takeaways from his interview with TF1 and France 2.
Pension reform to be enacted by year-end
Macron said his disputed pension overhaul was “necessary” to balance France’s pension system over the coming years amid shifting demographics.
“The longer we wait, the more it (the deficit) will deteriorate,” said the French president, whose government has failed to persuade the public – and indeed many economists – of the need for a reform.
“This reform is necessary, it does not make me happy. I would have preferred not to do it,” he said, calling for the reform to come into force by the end of 2023.
>> Protests, appeals, referendum: What’s next for France’s pension reform?
Macron, whose support is highest among pensioners and older workers, said 1.8 million pensioners “will start seeing their pension increase by an average of 600 euros per year” as a result of the changes.
Ready to accept ‘unpopularity’
The French president, who cannot seek re-election after his second term ends in 2027, said he was prepared to accept unpopularity over the contentious reform, which polls say is opposed by more than two-thirds of the French.
“Between short-term opinion polls and the broader interest of the nation, I choose (the latter),” he said. “If it is necessary to accept unpopularity today, I will accept it.”
Macron saw his approval rating plummet to 28% last week, according to an Ifop poll, his lowest level since the Yellow Vest crisis in 2019. The poll was conducted before he used special executive powers to force through his pension reform, further enraging his critics.
‘Restart’ talks with unions on worker conditions
Macron acknowledged the “call for justice” voiced by protesters during mass rallies against his pension reform, which critics say will primarily affect low-skilled workers who start their careers early and have physically draining jobs, as well as women with discontinuous careers.
He promised to set up an “investment fund for the prevention of occupational wear and tear”, though he avoided using the word “pénibilité” (arduousness), which has been a recurrent theme during protests.
During his first term in office, Macron struck down certain criteria of pénibilité that allowed some workers to retire earlier owing to the exhausting nature of their jobs. He has in the past said he was “not a fan” of the word pénibilité, “because it suggests that work is a pain”.
Confidence in Prime Minister Borne
Macron said his equally embattled Prime Minister Borne retained his confidence, brushing off calls for her to go.
“She (Borne) has my trust to lead this government team,” he said of the premier, whose approval rating has also slipped below 30%.
Macron urged Borne to “build a legislative platform” that is “clearer, more concise” and that “changes things for our compatriots in a more tangible way”.
Yes to dissent, no to violence
While acknowledging “legitimate protests”, the French president promised zero tolerance for violence following days of unrest triggered by his decision to bypass parliament.
Lawyers, magistrates and politicians from the opposition have accused police officers of making hundreds of arbitrary arrests in an attempt to stifle the anti-government protests.
Video footage of police brutality aimed at protesters and some journalists has prompted the country’s rights ombudswoman, Claire Hédon, to express her “concern”.
Macron had ruled out bowing to pressure from protesters during a meeting with cabinet ministers on Tuesday evening, dismissing talks of a snap election or a referendum.
“The crowd, whatever form it takes, has no legitimacy in the face of the people who express themselves through their elected representatives,” he said, glossing over the fact that he denied those representatives a vote on his pension reform.
Profit-sharing scheme for workers
Seeking to regain the political initiative, and shake off the “president of the rich” tag that still dogs him, Macron said he wanted the government to take measures ensuring that companies share more of their profits with workers.
“We have big companies that are in the process of buying back their own shares … We need to find the right way but they must share (profits) more with their employees,” he said.
Macron said he would ask the government to work on what he called an “exceptional contribution” by companies to the benefit of workers.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the idea was to spur a “substantial” increase in contributions to profit-sharing schemes by companies with more than 5,000 employees that buy back their own shares.