French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday defended his government’s hotly contested pension fund reform, making a rare intervention in a reform he championed but kept a low profile about.
A majority of the French population, according to polls, and left-wing groups in parliament are strongly opposed to a plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.
But Macron, who placed the overhaul at the center of his campaign last year, has so far largely avoided scheduled face-to-face meetings with members of the public and let his government deal with criticism.
Macron: “There is no miracle”
On Tuesday, he told reporters that a later age is needed as life expectancy rises.
“There is no miracle: if we want this system to work, we need to work longer,” he said, looking around the meat department of the huge Rungi wholesale food market south of Paris.
“Everyone has common sense… In general, people know that on average everyone has to work a little longer, otherwise we will not be able to properly fund our pensions,” he said.
“If we don’t create wealth, we can’t distribute it.”
The government says these changes are critical to getting France’s pension system out of deficit by 2030.
The proposals will bring France closer to its European neighbors, most of whom have retirement ages of 65 and above.
But in recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have gone on strike or taken to the streets five times to protest the proposed changes.
The adjustments will also include an increase in the number of years workers must save for full pension contributions and the elimination of certain special pension schemes.
– National treasure’ –
Macron called the French pension system a “treasure” and “the legacy of those who don’t have it.”
He acknowledged that the reform came at a “difficult” time for inflation, which he hoped would soon subside, but said it would “create more wealth for the country”.
Having met “professionals who work from morning to night” in the market, he wanted to send “a message of gratitude to all those who keep the country alive,” he added.
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A stormy two-week debate in the National Assembly of the bill ended on Friday, without even getting to the discussion of its controversial Article 7 on raising the retirement age.
The bill will be considered in the Senate of the upper house from February 28.
The poll showed that about 70 percent of respondents oppose the pension reform.
More than 1 million people demonstrated across the country in one of the largest days of protests in late January, according to the Interior Ministry.
Fewer demonstrators took part in the rallies on Thursday last week, but unions said they were simply trying to maintain momentum ahead of a mass strike planned for March 7.
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From that day on, unions have been warning of ongoing public transport strikes that could paralyze parts of the country for weeks on end.
The centrist government hopes to reform the parliament with the help of the right, without resorting to a mechanism that would avoid parliamentary elections but risk fueling new protests.