Facing a tight run-off against far-right challenger Marine Le Pen on April 24, French President Emmanuel Macron softened his stance Monday on overhauling the pension system and raising the retirement age – reform proposals that sparked mass protests during his first term.
Macron headed off to campaign in beleaguered former mining and steel-producing areas of northern France that have become far-right strongholds on Monday, just hours after a first round of voting set him up for a final run-off against Le Pen.
"I'm not going to pretend nothing happened; I have heard the message from those who voted for the extremes, including those who voted for Ms Le Pen," Macron told the journalists who followed him to Denain.
Macron said he was prepared to delay pension reform plans and only raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 – rather than 65, his initial proposal – to try to "build a consensus".
“I am ready to change the timeline and say we don’t necessarily have to implement the reform by 2030 if people are too anxious [about it],” Macron said.
But the announcement had his allies scrambling on Tuesday to defend what looked like a blatant attempt at appeasing the public on a controversial cornerstone of his first term as he heads into a tight final race with Le Pen, who denounced the move as a "ploy".
"The French are very smart. Everyone knows this is a ploy by Emmanuel Macron to try to win over – or at least mollify – left-wing voters," Le Pen told France Inter radio on Tuesday.
"The reality is, retirement at 65 is his obsession. It's all he has ever talked about," she added.
Le Pen, for her part, has promised to leave the retirement age at 62 – and even lower it to 60 for people who began working before the age of 20.
Macron tried to overhaul France's pension system two years ago but faced widespread backlash, including mass street protests. The government eventually pushed through the reforms in February 2020 without a parliamentary vote, prompting criticisms that Macron's administration had taken an authoritarian turn.
On Monday his stance appeared to soften.
"I'm ready to shift ... and say that we won't necessarily make this reform all the way [to 65] if I sense that people are too anxious [about it]," he said.
Since sweeping to power in 2017, Macron has said an overhaul is necessary to keep the pay-as-you-go system financially viable. But a series of massive strikes and then the Covid-19 pandemic forced him to shelve the plan in July 2020.
Some of his ministers publicly defended the change, with Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire saying it was better to seek a "compromise" with opponents of pension reform than to revive the debate.
"We know that it's hard to convince the French," Le Maire told CNews television, while insisting Macron would seek a pensions reform "that is fair and durable".
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Macron was simply being "pragmatic".
"It's called listening to people," he told FranceInfo radio.
Macron has also said that reform plans could be put to a national referendum.
Macron received a weighty endorsement on Tuesday from conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who broke months of campaign silence to say he would vote for the incumbent in the April 24 run-off.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and Reuters)