Macron Denounces Violent Protests in France

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron, addressing the French people for the first time since the tumultuous passing of a law that raises the retirement age to 64 from 62, denounced violent protests and said he would not tolerate their threat to the republic.

Speaking in a televised interview with two journalists, Mr. Macron said he respected “the labor unions who defend their point of view.” But, alluding to the threat to democracy constituted by the assault of a mob on the United States Congress in 2021, he made clear that he would “not tolerate any violent excesses.”

His tone was firm and unapologetic on the eve of another day of mass protests and strikes called for Thursday. Asked if he had made any mistakes, Mr. Macron said, “Having failed to convince people.”

That was his only concession on his methods, which have included a last-minute recourse to a legal tool, article 49.3 of the Constitution, in order to avoid a full parliamentary vote on a change that has split the country. This course was perceived by his critics as antidemocratic.

It would be easy, Mr. Macron said, to shirk his responsibilities and avoid an overhaul essential to the country’s financial stability and ability to invest in its future. “But if I have to shoulder unpopularity today, I shoulder it,” he said.

Labor unions and opposition politicians reacted angrily to Mr. Macron’s defense of his approach. “He is in absolute denial,” Olivier Faure, the leader of the Socialist Party, said. “I fear that Macron has emptied more explosives on a fire that was already well lit.”

But Mr. Macron was adamant. “Do you think it gives me pleasure to push through this reform?” he asked. “No.”

But, he continued, “this reform is not a luxury, not a pleasure, it’s a necessity for the country.”

He used a chart showing retirement ages of 65 or over in several other countries to illustrate his point, reverting to a professorial mode that has contributed to a persistent view of him as an aloof president.

“We have a president who is too sure of himself,” said Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail, or C.G.T., France’s second-largest union, after Mr. Macron spoke. “This is serious.”

The protests against retirement at 64, which brings France more in line with its European neighbors, have been generally peaceful over the past two months even as anger has mounted. But on Wednesday, protesters in Marseille set fire to wooden pallets and tires to block a highway; in Brest, dockers blocked the port; and in Paris, demonstrators from the C.G.T. union occupied a McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées.

Over the past week, violent nighttime clashes between police and protesters have erupted in several cities, including Paris, where there have been repeated chases between riot police firing tear gas and small groups of protesters lighting trash fires.

“When groups, as they have this week, use violence without any rules because they are not happy with something, then that is no longer democracy,” Mr. Macron said. At a time when “the United States lived what it lived at the Capitol,” he continued, “we respect, listen, we try to advance for the sake of the country, but we cannot accept insurrectionists or factions.”

Under the French system, today’s workers pay the pensions of a growing number of retirees, who now live longer. Over the medium term, the financial viability of this arrangement appears doubtful, even if Mr. Macron has not convinced French people of the urgency of the changes.

Mr. Macron, 45, noted that there were 10 million pensioners when he started working, there are 17 million now and soon there will be 20 million. Failure to raise the retirement age, he said, would be tantamount to “making our children pay because today you refuse to act with clarity and courage.”

His stance on Wednesday — that his course was the only responsible one for the country and generations to come — was a return to arguments Mr. Macron made last year. In recent months, the official narrative on the pension system has at different times been about justice, parlous public finances, even a left-wing program. The result has been confusion and growing resistance.

Mr. Macron had made clear his resolve on Tuesday evening when he told members of his centrist Renaissance party and its allies, “If you believe in this democratic and Republican order, a riot cannot win the day over the representatives of the people.”

Addressing a gathering at the presidential Élysée Palace, he continued, “The mob, whatever it is, has no legitimacy before the sovereign people expressing themselves through its elected representatives.”

In effect, at a time when the nature of democracy is being vigorously debated in France’s Fifth Republic, with its Constitution that gives the president enormous power, Mr. Macron argued that his decision to ram through the pension overhaul without a full parliamentary vote on the bill itself was more democratic than the “democracy” of widespread street protest.

His method was legal, and therefore, he said, he had the prerogative to use it; end of story, as Mr. Macron argued the case.

Commenting on Mr. Macron’s remarks Tuesday, François Bayrou, one of Mr. Macron’s key centrist allies, told Franceinfo on Wednesday: “I wouldn’t have put it that way. Demonstrations have their legitimacy, but it is not a greater legitimacy than democratic legitimacy.”

Mr. Macron has said very little about his pension overhaul over the past two months, leaving his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, and his ministers on the front lines to defend it from the opposition and to convince a skeptical public. This approach appears to have failed, as the president himself acknowledged without offering concessions or any possible compromise.

Speaking of Ms. Borne, who has faced intense criticism in the Parliament, Mr. Macron said, “She has my confidence to lead this government.” He added that, “even in this moment of political incandescence, there is no alternative majority.”

This was an apparent allusion to the fact that while the extreme-right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen and the far left led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon hold considerable power in the National Assembly, or lower house, they agree on very little except the need to prevent the pension overhaul.

While Mr. Macron stood firm on his pension changes, he outlined other measures to placate anger in the country, which he said was due partly to a “feeling of injustice.”

“This feeling of injustice is saying, in a way, ‘When it comes down to it, we are always the ones who are working, who are asked to make an effort,’” Mr. Macron said of the many protesters who will have to work longer because of the change in the retirement age.

The government, he said, would look into ways to ensure that when large companies collect “exceptional profits,” those profits are also shared with employees instead of being used only to buy back stock.

Overall, however, Mr. Macron’s intransigent position in his remarks suggested that the dispute over the pension overhaul could last a long time. He had no response when asked when exactly French people could expect a return to calm.

The president has taken on something much bigger than the retirement age: the nation’s deep attachment to social solidarity and the pervasive view that a long sentence of work is offset only by the liberating rewards of a retiree’s life.

At a time of war in Europe, rising inflation, increasing energy costs, broad anxiety about economic prospects and growing distrust of the democratic institutions of the Fifth Republic, Mr. Macron’s determination to fight this battle now has crystallized resentments and brought into frontal conflict two views of French society and identity.

Reporting was contributed by Catherine Porter, Constant Méheut, Daphné Anglès, Liz Alderman and Tom Nouvian.

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