Macron’s new year address falls flat as pension row deepens
Emmanuel Macron was labelled arrogant, self-satisfied and out of touch with reality by critics as he vowed to push through controversial changes to France’s pension system in the face of calls for more widespread strikes across the country.
In his New Year’s Eve address, the president urged his centre-right government to find a “rapid compromise” to end the protests that have run for four weeks and have disrupted transport networks.
However, he sounded a more steely note by declaring the pension reforms “will be carried out”.
Supporters lauded his determination as Macron offered an olive branch to opponents in talks that will restart on 7 January. The peace gesture, however, failed to defuse the tensions caused by the contested reforms; hardline unions said they were equally determined to continue their industrial action, calling for greater disruption and another day of mass protests on 9 January.
“These aren’t (new year) wishes, but a declaration of war against millions of French people who reject his reforms,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the head of the hard-left France Insoumise (FI) party, said. “The rest of his discourse sounded false and hollow. An extraterrestrial has spoken,” he tweeted.
Macron has remained out of the pensions fray until now, leaving his prime minister, Édouard Philippe, to deal with the crisis.
Yves Veyrier of the Force Ouvrière union said he was disappointed the president appeared not to realise the French did not want pension reform.
Opinion polls have suggested the country is in favour of pension changes, but not this particular reform, and in any case does not trust Macron to carry it out.
“I call on as many workers as possible to mobilise in support of those who are on strike so that they will end up hearing us,” Veyrier said.
The far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National (formerly the National Front) dismissed the president’s speech. “Once again … nothing,” she tweeted.
Olivier Besancenot, a former presidential candidate for the far left and one of the founders of the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste said Macron was living in “the legendary world of Camelot”.
“It’s worrying to be so out of touch and contemptuous in the face of a majority refusing his proposals. The battle will carry on to the end.”
Macron gave his address wearing a sombre suit and tie and – unusually – standing in front of the French and EU flags rather than sitting behind a desk.
He said he understood how “decisions taken could hit people and raise fears and opposition”, but added: “Should we then give up trying to change our country, our daily lives? No. Because to do so would be to abandon those already abandoned by the system, to betray our children and in turn their children, who would be left to pay the price of our renunciation. That is why the reform of the pension system will be carried out.”
During his 18-minute speech, Macron also evoked Brexit, saying the UK’s departure from the European Union was a “challenge” but that he would “strive to maintain a solid relationship between our two countries”.
He also briefly mentioned the challenges of rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral, devastated by fire in April last year, the environmental crisis and national unity.
Eric Coquerel, also of France Insoumise, said the address was a call to arms.
“There are two worlds; the world of Macron and the world in which almost all the rest of French people inhabit … between these two worlds there is an ever-widening gap. Tonight, there was a lunar side to Emmanuel Macron’s (new year) wishes.”
Ecologists were also disappointed. Julien Bayou, national sectretary of Europe Écologie-Les Verts, said: “We had to wait 10 minutes for him to finally mention ecology, for barely a minute,” he said.
Changing France’s complex pension system – currently 42 individual systems – was a plank of Macron’s 2017 election platform. His government has proposed to create a “universal points system”. Unions, particularly those in the public sector, say this will remove hard-won rights and privileges, including early retirement on full pensions for those in particularly stressful jobs.
Aurore Bergé, an MP for Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) party, said the president had been “extremely determined and extremely calm in the face of the challenges that face us”.
“This is what we expect from a president of the republic. We’re not here to listen only to the people on the streets, we are here to hear the voters and the mandate the French have given us, which was based on a clear pledge to carry out the necessary reforms,” Bergé added.
Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, also hailed the president’s “determination to act” and his “wish to unite the French”.
“Tonight, the president has renewed our ambition: to transform our country, to build a society together and united, as always, the republic,” he tweeted.