Macron braces for second week of protests against pension reform

In a photo taken on Dec 7, yellow vests protesters hold a portrait of French President Macron and a French flag march in Paris. PHOTO: AP

PARIS (BLOOMBERG) - France is gearing for a new week of protests with both the government and labour unions vowing to stick to their guns in the battle over President Emmanuel Macron's reform of the pension system.

Public transport workers and garbage collectors will be joined by employees from schools and state-owned utilities in action to disrupt cities across the country as they seek to put pressure on the president. Airports and airlines are expected to function normally on Monday (Dec 9).

Unions have been emboldened after more than 800,000 protesters took to the streets on Thursday - the biggest demonstration since Macron took office in May 2017.

"This is the first time Macron faces real opposition, a union wall," Bruno Cautres, a political scientist at the Sciences Po institute, said Sunday on France Info radio. "It's a significant and very tough movement."

Macron's opponents are looking to bring their influence into play before Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presents the pension reform in full on Wednesday. Macron's point man on pensions, Jean-Paul Delevoye, is meeting with labour unions on Monday.

The unions will stage fresh strikes the same day and plan nationwide protests on Tuesday, with representatives meeting each evening to decide on the next course of action.

Macron gathered his senior ministers on Sunday night at his Paris palace to discuss security issues for commuters and look at ways to sweeten a reform without losing its edge.

The 41-year-old president wants to replace France's 42 different pension regimes for different classes of workers with a universal points-based system. In the 21st century, he argues, workers don't have linear careers as they did when the current system was conceived in 1945 and the multitude of regimes leads to unfairness, complexity and failures.

The stakes are high for the president. He has told associates that he couldn't consider running for a second term in 2022 unless he succeeds with the pension reform, Le Figaro reported on Friday, though the Elysee palace denied the report. Macron has already had to face down unions after he relaxed labour and firing rules, made unemployment benefits harder to get and overhauled the national rail company.

"Macron will have to get involved and come out to defend his reform," Cautres said.

The Elysee palace said Macron had no plans at this stage to confront the opposition.

An Ifop poll published on Sunday showed 53 per cent of French people support the strikes, up six points from a similar survey last week.

Still, the strikes come at a cost, especially in the weeks running up to Christmas. A union for small- and medium-sized businesses said last Thursday's protest might have cost companies 400 million euros (S$599 million) with the Paris region footing about half that bill.

"I am determined to complete the reform," Prime Minister Philippe told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper. "If we do not make a profound, serious, progressive reform today, then someone else will make a truly brutal one tomorrow."

In the same newspaper Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, said "we will hold on until they withdraw" the reform bill. He said the scale of Thursday's protest was a sign of how much support the unions have across the country.

While Macron has already barrelled through reforms of tax and labour laws, history shows pensions won't be nearly as easy. In 1995, Prime Minister Alain Juppe abandoned his pension-reform plan after strikes paralysed the country for about a month.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on France 3 television on Sunday that the government would be ready to slow the pace at which the reform is implemented and ease the budgetary measures to cut the deficits. He urged labour unions not to seek a test of strength with Macron's team.

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