Seeking to Calm Unrest, Macron Calls for 'New Life and Work Pact'

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron, seeking a conciliatory tone after months of acrimonious conflict over his plan to raise the retirement age in France, expressed regret for the first time that a consensus had not been reached and appealed for a new “élan national” based on “calm, unity, ambition, and action”.

In a 13-minute address to the nation, Mr Macron, clearly determined to move on from the throes of pension reform, called for 100 days of concerted action to establish a new “life and work pact.” But his speech challenged the raised retirement age, offered no concessions, and contained few specific proposals. Unions had declined an invitation to start talks with him on Tuesday.

As he spoke, crowds were banging pots and pans outside city halls in Paris and other cities in an attempt to muffle Macron's voice. Unions have called for further massive protests for May 1, French Labor Day and a national holiday. They said they would not speak to the president at least until then.

“Are these reforms accepted?” asked Macron, alluding to a law finally announced last week that raised the legal retirement age to 64 from 62. “Definitely not. Despite months of discussion, a consensus could not be found. I regret it. We should all learn a lesson from this.”

This is as close as Macron has come to any form of regret over reforms that appear sloppy in their presentation, even if the president's core argument – ​​that with people living longer and healthier lives, retiring at 62 is no longer. financially sustainable – seems hard to argue with.

Mr Macron spoke from his office at the Élysée Palace. He has rarely ventured onto the streets of France in recent months, sparking an air of aloofness that has seen his approval rating drop to between 25 and 30 percent, the lowest since the Yellow Vests protest movement began in 2018.

Ahead of a visit to several French regions meant to combat the image of the long-distance leader, Macron said he was sensitive to the “anger” among French people and the difficulty of making ends meet. “No one can remain deaf to demands for social justice and the renovation of our democratic life,” he said.

Yet it is precisely this impression that Macron sometimes gives, by refusing to meet with labor leaders and, ultimately, adopting the pensions bill through a constitutional provision that avoids a full parliamentary vote on the bill. The speech came days after Macron, acting swiftly after a constitutional court approved an increase in the retirement age, formally enacted the pension law.

Starting in September, the legal age at which workers can start collecting pensions is increased gradually, by three months each year, until it reaches 64 years in 2030.

An angry reaction to the speech soon followed. Laurent Berger, leader of the French Democratic Labor Confederation, the largest and most moderate union, told BFMTV: “There is a kind of void in the president's intervention. Nothing in it shows any real consideration for the workers.”

Mr Berger, who supported a previously aborted attempt at a different pension change in 2019, mocked Mr Macron's assertion that the door was always open to unions, saying it had been padlocked three times over three months. “For the tenth time, the speech is just method, nothing concrete,” he said.

There are, however, a few specific steps that Macron says will be a priority for his government over the next few months—a mix, sometimes less detailed, of new and announced provisions, grouped under the headings “life and work,” “Republican order” and “progress.” for a better life.”

He said the government would seek to work with unions on a “new pact” to improve French people's working conditions and wages, and would reform vocational high schools to help reduce youth unemployment.

Teachers' salaries will increase – a long-term promise from Macron's government – and the president promised that by the end of the year, 600,000 patients with chronic diseases who currently do not have access to a general practitioner will get one.

Turning to law and order, a much-discussed theme since some protests turned violent and police responded with what some critics see as excessive force, Macron said the government would recruit more judges, form 200 gendarmerie brigades to help secure rural areas of France . , reducing illegal immigration and unveiling “robust” measures in May against crime and social and tax fraud.

As always, Mr. Macron, a centrist, offers courtesies to the right and to the left. For rights, he promised toughness on immigration and “less bureaucracy, more freedom of action, experimentation and empowering initiative.” For the left, he stressed France's attachment to social justice and stated, “We do not want to depend on anyone, neither speculative power, nor foreign power.”

Tensions have flared over the pension conflict between Mr Macron and his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, who has appeared more sensitive to the anxieties and anger of the French people. This has led to speculation he may be replaced. But Mr Macron made it clear he would stay with him, saying he would guide a 100-day push for some clear direction that will end on July 14, Bastille Day.

However, calming the waters to bring about change would be a difficult task. Mr Macron does not have an absolute parliamentary majority and appears more isolated than at any time since he took office six years ago.

As night fell, several hundred protesters marched through the Marais in central Paris, chanting slogans against Macron and emptying the cafes and restaurants that filled the streets of the fashionable neighborhood. They left a trail of burning trash in their wake, and were joined by dozens of riot police who shouted at passersby to get out of the way.

It's a familiar sight in Paris which has now been living with sporadic rioting for weeks, as has occurred in several other major cities.

By 10pm, restaurants and bars had filled back up and the only signs of protest were trash dumped on the street and rented scooters that had been dumped by the protesters.

Marine Le Pen, who emerged as the leading candidate for the 2027 presidential election in recent opinion polls for the first time, said the speech heralded “a period of humiliation, indifference and brutality, from which the only way out was the ballot box. ”

Mr Macron is term-limited and cannot seek re-election in 2027. One of his greatest preoccupations is that Ms Le Pen, a far-right nationalist and xenophobe, is not succeeding him as president.

Matthew Rosenberg reporting contribution.