French President Emmanuel Macron tried Tuesday to calm nationwide tensions and salvage support for his overhaul of the country’s retirement system, as France faced day 41 of crippling strikes.
Clutches of union activists gathered in Paris and other cities to demand that the government scrap the pension reform altogether. The plan’s toughest opponents were unmoved by the prime minister’s unexpected weekend decision to suspend a central measure: raising the full pension eligibility age from 62 to 64.
Struggling to save face and prevent new protest violence as his signature reform falters, Macron called for calm Tuesday and tried to show that he has heard protesters’ concerns.
“We understand the reactions,” he told reporters in the southern city of Pau. “It’s a subject that legitimately worries people.”
“We never like change,” he said. “There were always strikes, and there always will be on this subject.”
The strikes have hobbled public transport and disrupted schools, hospitals, courthouses and even opera houses. While the number of striking workers has diminished since the movement began Dec. 5, several trains and Paris subways were still halted Tuesday.
Opponents fear the reform will force them to work longer for less money. Macron insisted that the current system of more than 42 special pension regimes, created after World War II, has become unfair and ill-suited to the current economy. The government also says it’s too costly in a country with long life expectancy.
Macron called for “calm and clarity” and promised better explanation of what the changes will mean for different French workers.
As if bracing for new protest violence, he denounced extremist protesters who hijack demonstrations to attack police. But he also acknowledged growing concerns about police violence, and called on the interior minister to improve police “ethics and controls” to prevent abuses.