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France's Macron defiant on pension reform despite uproar

Tan KW
Publish date: Thu, 23 Mar 2023, 08:14 AM
Tan KW
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PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday defiantly vowed to push through a controversial pensions reform, saying he was prepared to accept unpopularity in the face of sometimes violent protests.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, acting on the president's instructions, last Thursday invoked an article in the constitution that adopted the contentious reform without a parliamentary vote.

The government on Monday narrowly survived a no-confidence motion but the uproar has descended into the biggest domestic crisis of the second term for Macron, first elected in 2017 with pledges to radically reform France.

Another day of national strikes and protests against the pension changes, in particular pushing back the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, is planned for Thursday.

In Paris, garbage continues to pile up in the streets due to stoppages by refuse collectors.

The tensions have also raised questions over the ability of France to host King Charles III of the UK when he arrives Sunday for the first foreign state visit of his reign.

While France's Constitutional Court still needs to give its last word on the reform, Macron told TF1 and France 2 in an interview that the changes needed to "come into force by the end of the year."

"The longer we wait, the more it (the deficit) will deteriorate. This reform is necessary, it does not make me happy. I would have preferred not to do it," he added in his first public comments after days of silence on the crisis.

Macron, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, said he was prepared to "accept unpopularity" over the reform.

"Given a choice between opinion polls in the short term and the general interest of the country, I choose the general interest of the country," Macron said.

A survey on Sunday showed Macron's personal approval rating at just 28 percent, its lowest level since the height of the anti-government "Yellow Vest" protest movement in 2018-2019.

Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-line CGT union, said that Macron's comments showed "disdain for the thousands of people who have been protesting."

Socialist Party chief Olivier Faure added: "It's amazing, he is in absolute denial. I'm afraid he just put more fuel onto an already well lit fire."

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right in parliament, said Macron had merely "reinforced the feeling of contempt" felt by the French.

There were new clashes between protesters and security forces in central Paris late on Tuesday, in a repeat of scenes over the last days that have seen hundreds arrested and accusations of heavy-handed tactics by police.

Forty-six people were arrested overnight in the latest clashes around Place de la Republique in Paris, while police used tear gas to disperse protests in other cities including Rennes and Nantes.

Blockades at oil refineries continue, potentially creating severe fuel shortages.

Before breaking his silence, Macron spent most of the previous day talking to ministers, advisors and other political heavyweights about the way forward, ruling out any radical move such as snap elections or a referendum.

But in a warning to protesters, he told the meeting: "The crowd, whatever form it takes, has no legitimacy in the face of the people who express themselves through their elected representatives" in parliament.

Asked in the television interview to explain this remark, which was denounced by the opposition, he said while organised protests were "legitimate", violence should be condemned and blockages not impede normal activity.

Referring to the insurrections by supporters of the ex-US and Brazilian presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro after election defeats, he added: "We cannot accept rebels or factions."

Borne invoked article 49.3 after failing to muster a parliamentary majority for the reform in the lower-house National Assembly, a consequence of Macron's ruling party losing its overall majority in the 2022 legislative elections.

Brushing off calls for her to go, Macron said in the interview that Borne retained his confidence but should now create a programme that "changes things for our compatriots in a more tangible way."

Lawyers, magistrates and some politicians accused police officers of having made arbitrary arrests in an attempt to stifle the protests, although this has been rejected by Paris police.

Amnesty International expressed alarm "about the widespread use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests reported in several media outlets" in how police deal with the protests.

Prominent Green MP Sandrine Rousseau said the coming visit by King Charles should be cancelled.

It was "unbelievable" that the president would dine with the monarch at the Versailles Palace outside Paris "while the people are protesting in the streets", she told BFM.

In an interview with Le Figaro, Macron's influential former prime minister Edouard Philippe advised the president to "broaden" his political base with "a coalition" including representatives of the opposition on the traditional right and left.


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