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French unions vow to push on with strikes despite Macron plea * President says pension reforms that sparked stoppages ‘will be carried out’
French unions have vowed to continue with a wave of punishing public sector strikes over Emmanuel Macron’s flagship pension reforms after the president pledged that the changes “will be carried out” but called for the government, employers and workers to find a compromise. In his traditional new year address to the nation on Tuesday night, Mr Macron urged his government to find a speedy compromise with the unions. “I am aware that changes can often be unsettling. But worries cannot lead to inaction because there is too much to do. 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.”
But Philippe Martinez, leader of the leftwing CGT union, dismissed the call for compromise and called for “strikes everywhere”. “I was under the impression of having heard this speech a thousand times before,” said Mr Martinez on French television channel BFMTV on Wednesday. “We have the impression of a president stuck in his bubble . . . who thinks that everything is OK in this country.” “We call on all French people to go on strike,” added Mr Martinez. “The alarm signal must be stronger.” A new round of talks between unions and the government is scheduled for January 7 ahead of a planned day of national protest on January 9. The strikes, which are about to enter 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 millions 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 this month, the holidays brought little respite as the strikes continued while union leaders and the government attacked each other in the press. Mr 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 but in polls taken just before Christmas a slim majority either supported or was in sympathy with the protests. While transport remains severely disrupted because of 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 with 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 he 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.