Emmanuel Macron has insisted he will not back down over raising the French pension age as he came out fighting in a live TV interview ahead of another day of national strikes and protests.
The president ruled out the dissolution of parliament, a reshuffle of his centrist government and the resignation of his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, as the opposition has demanded.
He said he had full confidence in Borne and only one personal regret: “That I have not succeeded in convincing people of the necessity of this reform.”
This failure and widespread opposition to the raising of the official retirement age from 62 to 64, as well as the government’s use of a constitutional clause to push the measure through without a vote, has played out on the streets over the past few days as protesters clashed with police in cities across France.
Macron’s administration narrowly survived a vote of no confidence on Monday by just nine votes, but the fiercest public anger has been directed at the president himself.
Many public commentators had expected Macron to seek to calm the highly charged situation that has seen five nights of protests against the government, without rowing back on the deeply unpopular legislation. Instead, he recommitted himself to his course.
“Is it a pleasure to do this reform? Could I have swept it under the carpet as others have done before me? This reform is not a luxury or a pleasure, it is necessary for the country,” he said in the TV interview.
He accused opponents of not coming up with a single “compromise solution” except that it be dropped entirely. Asked about the damage to his popularity he answered he was prepared to be unpopular “for the greater interest of the nation”.
The were “not 36 solutions” to financing the pension system, he said.
After his 30-minute television appearance, French union representatives and opposition accused the president of ignoring the public mood.
Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, said the president had shown “contempt for the millions of people who are protesting”.
Arthur Delaporte, an MP for the Socialist party, said Macron “understood nothing of what is going on in the country” and accused the president of “contempt and arrogance”.
“We saw a president up in the clouds in a parallel universe and in total denial of what is happening right now in the country,” Delaporte told France Television.
“In effect, the president told the people, you’ve understood nothing of what I’m doing, I haven’t been able to explain because after all, you are stupid and confinement Covid affected your brain and I’m more intelligent than everyone and I’m right. It is astonishing to see the gap between the president and the country.”
Successive French presidents have attempted to overhaul France’s complex pension system often dropping measures in the face of protests and unrest. In 1995, the centre-right president Jacques Chirac’s government tried and failed when 2 million people took to the streets paralysing France for almost three weeks.
Macron made pension reform a pillar of his successful 2017 election campaign but legislation was halted during the Covid crisis and successive lockdowns. He put it back on the table for his 2022 re-election campaign, which he won, but his Renaissance party failed to obtain a majority in the Assemblée Nationale in the general election two months later.
After weeks of protests against the bill that not only raises the retirement age but requires workers to progressively contribute for longer to receive a full pension, the French government made an already volatile situation worse last week when it used a constitutional tool called the 49:3 to bypass a vote by MPs.
Since then, France has experienced a serious of spontaneous protests, some which have descended into violent clashes between demonstrators and police who have been accused of being heavy handed and arbitrarily arresting hundreds of people. Most of them have later been released without charge.
Strikes have led to roads being blockaded, protests at refineries, docks and universities, railway lines being occupied and targeted electricity blackouts. Tons of rubbish are piling up in Paris because of continuing action by refuse collectors, who have voted to strike until Monday.
Transport leaders are warning public transport and flights will be “very disrupted” on Thursday, the unions’ ninth day of national action.
The legislation will come into effect on 1 September pending the go-ahead from France’s constitutional court, which is currently examining the bill.
Macron said in the interview he had heard the public anger and would ask his government to come up with “clear and concise” legislation to deal with this discontent, much of which had “nothing to do with pensions”, he said.
In response to the “sense of injustice” felt by ordinary French people he said he would ask the government to draw up measures to make large profit-making companies add an “exceptional contribution” to their workers’ salaries and help the long-term unemployed back into work.
His priorities were threefold, he said: full employment and carbon-free re-industrialisation by 2030; law and order with more gendarmerie brigades and a sped-up legal system; and addressing specific education, health and ecological issues. He described this as a “forced march” into the future.
“We cannot stop or not act,” he said.