Obliged to break his silence, but without moving a millimeter on the actual issue. On Friday, March 10, on the eve of the seventh day of protests, Macron went public twice on pension reform. In the middle of the day, the Elysée Palace forwarded a letter from the President to the eight unions and five youth organizations that had written to him on Thursday, March 9, denouncing the “lack of response” of both the President and his administration in the face of “massive protests.”
“I am not underestimating the discontent which you are the spokespersons for, or the concerns expressed by many French people worried about never having a pension,” Macron conceded, while refusing to meet with the unions despite their requests, and referring them to his ministers . “The government is listening to you as always, in moving forward in the dialogue.” According to Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s team, there is no meeting currently scheduled between government and the trade unions, although the door is always “open.”
Macron declined to express an opinion on the subject this week, claiming he was respecting the “parliamentary process” with the review of the bill in the Senate. However, according to several people close to him, he could not leave the unions’ letter unanswered. On Tuesday, March 7, on the evening of the sixth day of protests, the inter-union group had begun to personalize the confrontation by asking to be received “urgently” at the Elysée Palace.
A chance to offer new justification for the reform
On Friday afternoon, at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Paris, Macron said the reform should run its course in Parliament, while opponents denounced a “forced passage” in the Senate with the exercise of Article 44.3, which allows the government to force a vote on a bill.
“There was a time for union negotiations, then there was a time for the government to do its job. This was followed by the parliamentary time in the National Assembly, and now in the Senate. And the Senate is working hard, day and night ,” Macron explained, dodging questions about a possible use of Article 49.3 in the Assemblée Nationale on Thursday, March 16, if the joint committee is conclusive on Wednesday, March 15. “I won’t indulge in political speculation here, that’s not my function.”
Ultimately, the letter to the unions primarily allows Macron to offer new justification for his pension reform, which he argues is necessary because of the “lasting and growing deficits that our system will face in the years to come,” and to insist on the legitimacy of this project, that was “at the heart of the presidential campaign.”
Accused by Laurent Berger, secretary general of the CFDT, of “willful deafness,” Macron believes that “there have been many changes to the initial project,” citing hard working conditions, long working lives and the upward adjustment of small pensions. “We are aware that the majority of French people are not in favor,” said government spokesperson Olivier Véran, “But the French also know that we have made repeated efforts.”
‘Letter out of touch with reality’
This missive has further annoyed the unions, who are targeting Macron in return. “His position is unchanged, and he’s repeating the same claims about a reform that is fair and necessary, while we’ve shown the reasons why this is false. He’s denying reality,” said François Hommeril, president of CFE-CGC.
Hommeril was joined by Laurent Escure, General Secretary of the UNSA. “It’s a bit like ‘Move along, there’s nothing to see,’ and it’s very serious. It’s detached from the reality of our country. It will make people even angrier.” “This letter is out of touch, it doesn’t even give a clear answer to our request for a meeting at the Elysée Palace. We can only conclude that it’s a refusal,” summarized Cyril Chabanier, president of the CFTC.
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For several days now, Macron and his team have been thinking about a formal speech once the bill has gone through all the parliamentary stages, probably at the end of March or beginning of April. According to several people close to him, Macron wants to put the importance of the reform into perspective as a way of concluding the debates, and to open up new areas for work by pulling together the threads after weeks of dispute. “We won’t be able to deal with the government by pretending that we’re drawing a line under what happened,” Chabanier countered.