Seeking to Calm Unrest, Macron Calls for a ‘New Pact of Life and Work’
PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron, straining for a tone of reconciliation after months of bitter conflict over his plan to raise the retirement age in France, expressed regret for the first time that a consensus was not reached and appealed for a new “national élan” based on “calm, unity, ambition and action.”
In a 13-minute address to the nation, Mr. Macron, clearly determined to move on from the pension reform upheaval, appealed for 100 days of concerted action to establish a “new pact of life and work.” But his speech was defiant on the raised retirement age, offering no concessions, and contained few specific proposals. Labor unions have already rejected an invitation to begin talks with him on Tuesday.
As he spoke, crowds banged pots and pans outside city halls in Paris and other cities in an attempt to drown out Mr. Macron’s voice. Unions have called for a further day of massive protest on May 1, the French Labor Day and a national holiday. They have said they will not speak to the president at least until then.
“Is this reform accepted?” Mr. Macron asked, alluding to the law finally promulgated last week that raises the legal retirement age to 64 from 62. “Clearly not. Despite the months of discussion, a consensus could not be found. I regret it. We must all draw lessons from this.”
This was as close as Mr. Macron has come to any form of contrition over a reform that appeared bungled in the way it was presented, even if the president’s core argument — that with people living longer and healthier lives, retirement at 62 is no longer financially tenable — has seemed hard to dispute.
Mr. Macron spoke from his office in the Élysée Palace. He has rarely ventured into the streets of France over the past few months, fueling an impression of aloofness that has seen his approval ratings tumble to between 25 and 30 percent, the lowest since the Yellow Vest protest movement began in 2018.
On the eve of visits to several areas of France intended to counter the image of a remote leader, Mr. Macron said that he was sensitive to the “anger” among French people and the difficulties of making ends meet. “Nobody can remain deaf to the demand for social justice and the renovation of our democratic life,” he said.
Yet it is precisely this impression Mr. Macron has sometimes given, by declining to meet with labor leaders and, in the end, adopting the pension bill through a constitutional provision that avoided a full parliamentary vote on the draft law. The speech came days after Mr. Macron — acting swiftly after the constitutional court approved the retirement age increase — officially enacted the pension law.
Beginning in September, the legal age when workers can start collecting a pension is increased gradually, by three months every year until it reaches 64 in 2030.
Angry reactions to the speech followed swiftly. Laurent Berger, the leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, the largest and most moderate labor union, told BFMTV: “There is a kind of emptiness in the president’s intervention. There is nothing in it that shows real consideration for workers.”
Mr. Berger, who supported an earlier aborted attempt at a different pension change in 2019, mocked Mr. Macron’s statement that the door was always open to unions, saying it had been triple padlocked for three months. “For the tenth time, it was a speech on method, with nothing concrete,” he said.
There were, however, some specific measures that Mr. Macron said would be his government’s priority over the next few months — a mix, sometimes short on details, of new provisions and ones already announced, grouped under the headings of “life and work,” “Republican order” and “progress to live better.”
He said that the government would attempt to work with labor unions on a “new pact” to improve the working conditions and salaries of the French, and that it would reform vocational high schools to help reduce youth unemployment.
Teachers’ salaries would increase — a long-running promise from the Macron government — and the president vowed that by the end of the year, 600,000 patients with chronic ailments who do not currently have access to a general practitioner would get one.
Turning to law and order, a much discussed theme since a few protests turned violent and the police responded with what some critics saw as excessive force, Mr. Macron said the government would recruit more judges, create 200 gendarmerie brigades to help secure France’s rural areas, cut back on illegal immigration and unveil “strong” measures in May against crime and social and tax fraud.
As usual, Mr. Macron, a centrist, offered blandishments to right and left. For the right, he promised toughness on immigration and “less bureaucracy, more freedom of action, experimentation and empowering of initiative.” For the left, he insisted on the French attachment to social justice and declared, “We do not want to depend on anyone, neither speculative forces, nor foreign powers.”
Tensions have flared during the pension conflict between Mr. Macron and his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, who has appeared more sensitive to the anxieties and anger of French people. This has led to speculation she may be replaced. But Mr. Macron made clear that he would stick with her, saying she would guide the 100-day push for some clear direction that will end on July 14, Bastille Day.
Calming the waters to bring change will, however, be a difficult task. Mr. Macron does not have an absolute parliamentary majority and appears more isolated than at any time since he took office six years ago.
As night fell, a few hundred protesters marched through the Marais in central Paris, chanting slogans against Mr. Macron and emptying the cafes and restaurants that dot the streets of the fashionable neighborhood. They left a trail of trash fires in their wake, and were followed by dozens of police in riot clear who shouted at pedestrians to clear out.
It was a familiar scene in a Paris that has now lived with sporadic unrest for many weeks, as have several other major cities.
By 10 p.m. the restaurants and bars were filled back up and the only sign of the protests was the trash dumped onto the streets and rental scooters that had been thrown around by the protesters.
Marine Le Pen, who has appeared for the first time as the leading candidate for the 2027 president election in recent polls, said that the speech portended “a period of contempt, indifference and brutality, from which the only way out is the ballot box.”
Mr. Macron is term-limited and cannot run again in 2027. One of his greatest preoccupations is that Ms. Le Pen, a far-right nationalist and xenophobe, not succeed him as president.
Matthew Rosenberg contributed reporting.