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01.01.2020 Europe

Macron vows to carry out pension reform despite strike

LISTEN JAN 1, 2020

In Tuesday's much awaited televised New Year's Eve address, French President Emmanuel Macron said his government would push through a pension overhaul that has sparked one of the country's biggest transport strikes in decades. He called for a "rapid compromise" with unions.

Macron gave no sign in his address that he would back down on the plan to overhaul France's complex pension system, saying "the pension reform will be carried out."

While acknowledging concerns about the plan, not least that it could require people to work longer, Macron said "these worries cannot lead us to inaction."

"That would be abandoning those who the system has abandoned, youths who would pay the price for our inaction," he said.

The pension overhaul, a centrepiece of Macron's sweeping plan to reform the French economy and institutions, would replace the current system of 42 separate schemes with a single point-based system which the government says would be fairer and more sustainable.

But unions are resisting a new "pivot age" of 64 when workers would qualify for a full pension, beyond the official retirement age of 62.

The strike, which began on 5 December, has severely impacted train and metro services, upending travel plans for tens of thousands of people during the holiday season. It is proving a key test of Macron's ability to implement his vow to reform France after coming to power in 2017.

The government has already offered some concessions: police and firefighters would still be able to retire earlier, and Macron said "we will take into account difficult tasks so that people who do them can retire earlier."

Unions vow to keep up the pressure
Macron's call for a "Christmas truce" during the strike went unheeded and unions have vowed not to back down ahead of new talks with the government set for 7 January.

Another day of mass protests is set for 9 January, when teachers, dockers, hospital workers and other public-sector employees are expected to join the strike for the day.

And energy workers at the hard-line CGT union called Tuesday for a three-day blockade at the country's oil refineries and fuel depots starting 7 January, raising the prospect of petrol shortages.

"This government isn't listening at all, we need to put more pressure on them," Thierry Defresne, a union official at French energy giant Total, told AFP.

Far left leader talks of 'declaration of war' 

Macron's speech was his second major attempt at damage control, following last year's address at the height of the "yellow vest" protests demanding a better standard of living.

At the time he announced some 10 billion euros in financial relief for low earners, and union leaders are hoping their strike, now in its 28th day, will also lead to concessions.

Reacting to Macron's comments, Yves Veyrier, secretary-general of the Force Ouvriere (FO) Union, one of France's biggest, said: "I don't get the impression that there is much room for negotiation."

Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the France Unbowed (LFI) party, added on Twitter: "These are not (New Year) wishes but a declaration of war on the millions of French who reject the reform".

Macron also raised foreign policy issues during his 18-minute address, noting that he wanted a strong relationship with post-Brexit Britain.

"The United Kingdom's departure from the European Union is a test for our country. I will strive to maintain a solid relationship between our two countries," he said.

(with AFP)

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