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Macron and France brace for stormy January

#Macron #France #brace #stormy #January

Addressing the nation on New Year’s Eve, French President Emmanuel Macron put the country on alert for another period of political turbulence. 

The 45-year-old, speaking from the Elysee palace, acknowledged the “anxieties” of many people amid rocketing food prices, worries about the war in Ukraine and lingering concern about Covid-19.

But he vowed to press ahead with plans to push back the retirement age, starting later this month — a widely unpopular move that even some political allies worry is unwise in the current context.

“As I promised to you, this year will be the year of reform to the pension system which aims to balance our system for the years and decades to come. We need to work more,” said the centrist, who was re-elected last April. 

Largely fruitless talks to try to win over France’s labour unions continued this week, led by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, but the battle lines between the government and its opponents are already drawn. 

Offers to water down the changes — by raising the retirement age to only 64, instead of the 65 initially targeted — appear unlikely to sway many voters or splinter the unions, which are unanimously opposed.

“I’ll say it here and I told the prime minister: if the retirement age is pushed back to 64 or 65, the CFTD will mobilise to contest this reform,” the head of the moderate CFDT, Laurent Berger, told reporters as he left Borne’s office on Tuesday. 

All of the country’s left-wing political parties, as well as the far-right National Rally, are against the changes and have vowed to join protests. 

“It’s going to get hot in January,” hard-left political leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the France Unbowed party, wrote on Twitter. 

Macron’s MPs are primed for battle in the stormy national parliament, where they are in a minority and need allies.

“It’s going to get rough. Everyone knows it,” ruling party lawmaker Stephane Travert told the Parisien newspaper. 

– Warnings –  

At its current level of 62, the country’s official retirement age lags behind that found in larger European neighbours Germany and Britain, where it is rising to 66 or 67. Swedes, Estonians and Dutch workers are expected to toil into their 70s.

Official forecasts show the French pension system as balanced in the short-term but running major deficits in the coming decades due to the ageing population. 

Macron has long championed overhauling the system, but he postponed a first attempt in 2020 in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and some of the biggest union-organised protests of his opening term in office.

Since winning a second mandate in April, with a manifesto that included pension reform, he has hesitated about the timing.

“We have not, collectively, done enough of the necessary effort to educate people,” Macron’s close ally Francois Bayrou warned in December.

But the 45-year-old president is now committed to a clear calendar that puts his reputation and ability to push through other changes on the line.

The outlines will be unveiled next Tuesday, with a draft law set to go before parliament in February.

Some fear another violent popular uprising of the sort seen in 2018 when so-called “Yellow Vest” protesters spontaneously took to the streets.

“The seeds (of another social explosion) are there and a spark could set everything on fire,” Frederic Dabi, a leading pollster and author, told Europe 1 radio this week. 

A “Yellow Vest” group has called for protests this Saturday.

– Fatalism? – 

But reading the public mood remains extremely difficult.

Like many European countries, France has been hit by strikes in recent months — on the railways, in hospitals and at oil refineries — as workers press for higher wages in the face of inflation of around 6.0 percent. 

Most French people are against the pension changes, with roughly six out of 10 (58 percent) saying they would support protests, a poll by the Ifop group showed on Wednesday.

But a majority also tell pollsters that they believe the current pension system is unsustainable.

“There’s a form of fatalism,” an aide to Macron told AFP recently on condition of anonymity. “We’re going to go through with it and people know it.”

Adelaide Zulfikarpasic, director general of the BVA France polling group, told AFP the country appeared “tired, jaded”, making it difficult to know if it was “on the verge of a major protest movement or resignation.”

She was more confident in predicting that “the year 2023 promises to be perilous for the president”.

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