Emmanuel Macron will be forced to speak out on France’s ongoing pensions strike in his televised new year address on Tuesday as transport stoppages look likely to continue into a fifth week causing major disruption over the holiday period and into January.
The centrist French president, who made overhauling the country’s pensions system a key election pledge, has until now refrained from intervening personally, leaving his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, to deal with the day-to-day response to the crisis.
But, as slogans among leftwing demonstrators at a street protest in Paris this weekend, read: “Macron, your silence is killing us”, Elysée officials told French media that Macron’s televised speech on 31 December would would aim to calming tensions. He is likely to express sympathy for the many people whose travel plans have been disrupted, acknowledge the constitutional right to strike and call for dialogue.
On a trip to West Africa before Christmas, he simply urged transport unions to call a truce over the festive season, which they ignored, leaving rail services severely disrupted.
Macron is unlikely, however, to enter into the complex technical details of the pension changes in his new year address, instead arguing that, after overhauling labour rules and the unemployment benefit system, changes to pensions are vital to his plans to deliver what he has called the biggest transformation of the French social model and welfare system since the second world war.
The government insists it will be fairer to create a single, universal points-based system for all — instead of dozens of different systems for workers in different sectors. It also says it will be able to balance the pension budget by incentivising workers to stay in the labour force until 64 in order to take home full a pension, instead of leaving at the official retirement age of 62. The unions, however, fear people will be made to work longer for lower pensions. Even moderate unions are angry at any effective change to the retirement age.
Macron is under pressure to make concessions to unions and strikers, but he has built his political identity on a promise never to cave in to street protests. Nor can he risk alienating his support base, which currently includes voters from the traditional right, by being seen to concede too much. He also faces a growing distrust of politicians in France. Polls have shown that many French voters want pension reform, but they do not trust the government to do it fairly.
The nationwide transport strike entered its 25th day on Sunday and looks likely to continue for at least another two weeks, potentially spreading in January when teachers are back at school and could join in. Government negotiations will resume on 7 January ahead of a nationwide day of protest scheduled for 9 January. The longest previous transport strike in France lasted for 28 days, also over Christmas in 1986 and early 1987.
Rail workers, some of whom have already lost considerable income from the strike, said they wanted government concessions. Other professions have had their pension proposals tweakedin recent days. After striking ballet dancers at the Paris Opera performed Swan Lake in the street before Christmas in what protesters called the most beautiful picket line Paris had seen, the culture minister offered to make the reforms apply only to dancers who join after 2022. Other concessions will apply to airline pilots and flight attendants, as well as police and firefighters.
Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, the junior transport minister, accused the leftwing CGT union on Sunday of “systematically opposing all reforms” and said it often engaged in intimidation. Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, shot back that the government was “organising chaos” and deliberately allowing the conflict to worsen.
Macron’s new year’s speech will not be the first he has given with the country in the throes of social crisis. His gave his address last year after weeks of anti-government gilets jaunes protests and called on the nation to unite and stop “hateful” attacks.
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