French President Emmanuel Macron. Picture: REUTERS/FRANÇOIS MORI
French President Emmanuel Macron. Picture: REUTERS/FRANÇOIS MORI

Paris — On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron’s government began hastily arranged negotiations on the financing of pensions in an effort to secure the backing of moderate unions for his overhaul of the system.

By accepting demands for a conference on financing, the government aims to drive a wedge between unions that have so far orchestrated 37 days of strikes, hitting many sectors and bringing havoc to transport systems of large cities.

While far-left unions are demanding a wholesale rejection of Macron’s reform, their more moderate peers support the overarching plan to replace 42 separate pension systems with one universal, points-based system. They have balked, however, at a measure to finance the system by introducing penalties and bonuses to encourage later retirement.

The government hopes to win the support of moderate unions — in particular the CFDT, the largest private-sector union — by giving them an opportunity to find alternative financing solutions with the conference.

“A quick and satisfactory compromise for everyone is now possible,” budget minister Gérald Darmanin said in an interview in Le Figaro ahead of Friday’s talks. “But everyone needs to budge: the government and the unions.”

Crunch moment

The financing talks are a crunch moment for a critical reform in Macron’s economic programme. Like previous overhauls of labour rules, unemployment benefits and tax, the government says the changes to pensions are driven by a push to loosen rules that bind the French economy and challenge the ingrained advantages of some.

The ferocious response of unions has cast doubt on whether Macron can deliver. In addition to ongoing strikes — the longest on record in the transport sector — opponents have organised protests around the country.

Yet the number of people taking to the streets has declined over time. Nationwide, 452,000 joined protests on Thursday, down from 615,000 on marches December 17, AFP reported, citing the interior ministry.

Surveys also indicate that French people increasingly expect the government to prevail, even if the strikes continue.

An Ipsos poll carried out late on Thursday showed 71% of those surveyed believe the government will push through its pension reforms, up two points from a month ago. About 80% also said they expect the strikes to continue for several weeks.

Friday’s talks, which will take place at the offices of prime minister Édouard Philippe, are only the start of negotiations on financing that will aim to define a method and a timetable.

The draft pensions bill, according to the AFP, still contains the contentious measures on the retirement age, with a provision that they would not be implemented as planned if unions and businesses can find an alternative.


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