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Macron tells French government to ‘man the front lines’ during pension strike

Protesters hold CGT union flags in Toulouse as part of nationwide strikes and protests over the government's proposed pension reform - AFP
Protesters hold CGT union flags in Toulouse as part of nationwide strikes and protests over the government's proposed pension reform - AFP

Emmanuel Macron has reportedly ordered his government to stand firm and “man the front lines” as strikes against the pension age increase swept the country.

More than 1.1 million French workers went on strike on January 19 over the plans to raise the official retirement age by two years to 64. Unions hope turnout will be even higher on Tuesday to oppose what they claim is a “brutal” reform, which will also see workers obliged to make social security contributions over 43 years rather than 42 years in order to draw a full pension from 2027.

The first day of action already amounted to the largest protests since the last major round of pension reform in 2010, which raised the official retirement age from 60 to 62 despite the mass demonstrations.

“We hope to be at least that many again,” hard-Left CGT union boss Philippe Martinez told media on Tuesday, adding there would be 250 protest marches.

Some 11,000 police were deployed, with 4,000 in Paris where several hundred extremist troublemakers were expected, according to the interior ministry.

Riot police face protesters in Nantes - AFP
Riot police face protesters in Nantes - AFP
Deserted platforms at the Montparnasse train station on Jan 31 - AP
Deserted platforms at the Montparnasse train station on Jan 31 - AP

But Mr Macron has shown no sign of stepping back, insisting on Monday that the reform is “essential” to “save our system” of pensions distribution.

With polls suggesting that between two-thirds and 71 per cent of the French disapprove of the reform, Mr Macron has told ministers to batten down the hatches ahead of strikes and a turbulent debate in parliament, where he no longer enjoys an absolute majority.

According to Le Figaro, he urged them to go “on the offensive” and “man the front lines” rather than get into long-winded explanations of a reform the French would rather see swept under the carpet, with many finding it “unfair” for women and those who start work young.

His prime minister Elisabeth Borne set the tone on Sunday by declaring the retirement age raise to 64 “no longer negotiable”. His Right-wing interior minister Gérald Darmanin then weighed in by accusing “bourgeois bohemian” Leftists loyal to Jean-Luc Mélenchon of defending “a society without work, without effort” and seeking to sow “chaos around the country”.

Mr Mélenchon hit back by claiming that “Mr Macron (is) certain to lose” as he marched in the southern port city of Marseille.

Around half of all nursery and primary school teachers were on strike while France’s oil industry was largely paralysed, with the CGT union at energy giant TotalEnergies reporting between 75 and 100 per cent of workers on strike.

“The more French people find out about the reform, the less they support it,” said Frederic Dabi, a prominent pollster at the Ifop institute.

“This is not good at all for the government,” he told AFP.

Opponents: Pension spending is not out of control

Despite France’s ageing population, opponents point to studies suggesting the system is not on the verge of collapse and that pension spending is not out of control.

The government insists that the system will increasingly dip into deficit without the changes and that France has the lowest qualifying age for a state pension among major European economies.

Unions say there are other ways to raise revenue, such as taxing the super-rich or asking employers or well-off pensioners to contribute more.

In an editorial titled French malaise, Le Figaro lamented that the reform - which it said could hardly be called, as some unionists claimed, “the mother of all battles” - had taken on “disproportionate political and symbolic” proportions.

The level of opposition it had triggered spoke volumes about tensions in French society over rising living costs and inflation, wrote the conservative daily.

“This bill is an essential but almost derisory adjustment in the face of the current challenges. If it puts our country on the verge of a nervous breakdown, it is because the evil that afflicts us is far deeper,” it warned.