PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron insisted on the need for raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 in order to make the French pension system financially sustainable in the coming years, in a letter to workers’ unions released Friday.
The move comes after more than a million demonstrators marched in cities and towns across France this week as train and metro drivers, refinery workers and others started open-ended strikes against the centrist government’s plan.
Unions called for more protests on Saturday. They are demanding the withdrawal of the bill, which is being debated by the French Senate this week.
According to the letter provided by the president’s office, Macron said he made the choice to “make the French work a little longer” because other options, which he rejected, would have involved “decreasing pensions, raising taxes or letting our children and grandchildren carry the financial burden.”
Union leader Francois Hommeril of the CFE-CGC, which represents workers in the energy sector, among others, said Friday that Macron’s letter appeared to be another “missed opportunity” for the president to pursue reforms while listening to concerned workers.
The president “acts as if the social movement did not exist,” French broadcaster BFM TV quoted Hommeril as saying. He added: “I am very disappointed and worried about (Macron‘s) response.”
Opinion polls consistently show a majority of the French oppose the change. Left-wing lawmakers argue companies and the wealthy should pitch in more to finance the pension system.
Macron also recalled the measure was a key promise from his presidential campaign last year, adding that he made a concession by agreeing to put the age limit at 64, down from 65 as initially planned.
“You strongly express your disagreement,” Macron wrote to the unions. “I don’t underestimate the discontent … as well as the anxiety expressed by many French people who have concerns about never getting any pension.”
Meanwhile, the government asked Friday for a special procedure to be implemented at the Senate to accelerate the debate by organizing one single vote on the whole bill, rather than voting on each amendment and article.
The government’s decision to apparently push the bill through the Senate will “deepen the anger” among French workers, said Fabrice Coudour, a leader of the influential union CGT Energy. He called on strikers and opponents of the retirement reform to take their grievances to the streets on Saturday.
The Senate, which is dominated by members of The Republicans party, is expected to approve the bill. Conservative senators have pushed for years to raise the minimum retirement age.
If the bill is approved by the Senate, it will continue making its way next week through France’s complex legislative process.
Macron’s centrist alliance has the most seats in the National Assembly but lost its majority in legislative elections last year, making the outcome of a vote in the lower house of parliament hard to predict.
On Friday, Macron did not rule out using a special constitutional power to force the bill through parliament without a vote, after the debate at the Senate is over.
“The parliament will follow the terms of our Constitution so that a legislative text can make its way through, no more, no less,” the president said during a news conference.
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