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Macron breaks silence in bid to defuse pensions crisis

Francesco Fontemaggi - Philstar.com
Macron breaks silence in bid to defuse pensions crisis
Protesters hold a banner and placards depicting French Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt (L), French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne (C) and French President Emmanuel Macron at Place de la Republique during a demonstration, a few days after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using the article 49.3 of the constitution, in Paris on March 21, 2023. French Prime Minister's government on March 20, 2023 narrowly survived the first -- and more risky -- of two no-confidence motions over its decision to bypass parliament and impose a controversial pension reform. French President told allies he plans to keep the government in place and not dissolve parliament, defying opponents and widespread public anger over his pensions reform.
AFP / Ludovic Marin

PARIS, France — French President Emmanuel Macron is to make Wednesday his first public comments on the crisis sparked by his government forcing through a pensions overhaul, which has sparked violent protests and questions over his ability to bring about further change.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, acting on the president's instructions, last Thursday invoked an article in the constitution that adopted the contentious reform without a parliamentary vote.

The government Monday narrowly survived a no-confidence motion but the uproar has descended into the biggest domestic crisis of the second term for Macron, first elected in 2017 with pledges to radically reform France.

Another day of national strikes and protests against the pension changes, in particular pushing back the minimum retirement age to 64 from 62, is planned for Thursday and garbage continues to pile up in the streets of Paris due to stoppages by refuse collectors.

The tensions have also raised questions over the ability of France to host King Charles III of the UK when he arrives Sunday for the first foreign state visit of his reign.

There were new clashes between protesters and security forces in central Paris late on Tuesday, in a repeat of scenes over the last days that have seen hundreds arrested and accusations of heavy-handed tactics by security forces.

Blockades at oil refineries continue, potentially creating severe fuel shortages. There were clashes Tuesday at Fos-sur-Mer outside Marseille as authorities sought to force refinery workers back to work.

'The crowd has no legitimacy' 

Macron, who made raising the retirement age a cornerstone of his re-election campaign last year, has so far refused publicly to enter the fray and made no comment on the uproar other than in closed-door meetings.

That will change later Wednesday when the president gives a live television interview to TF1 and France 2 television channels on the lunchtime news at 1200 GMT. 

Before breaking his silence, Macron spent most of Tuesday talking to ministers, advisors and other political heavyweights about the way forward but ruled out any radical concession.

There will be no new prime minister to replace Borne, no dissolution of the lower-house National Assembly and no referendum on the pensions reform, people involved in the discussions told AFP.

Borne invoked article 49.3 after failing to muster a parliamentary majority for the reform in the Assembly, a consequence of Macron's ruling party losing its overall majority in the 2022 legislative elections.

Macron also called on his troops to provide ideas in the "next two to three weeks" aimed at "a change in method and a new reform agenda", one participant said, requesting anonymity.

But in a warning to protesters, he added: "The crowd, whatever form it takes, has no legitimacy in the face of the people who express themselves through their elected representatives" in parliament.

Spontaneous protests by young people -- coordinated in encrypted messaging services -- have seen nightly clashes with police since last week.

Some protesters burned trash bins, bikes and other objects, while others blocked traffic in parts of the country.

Forty-six people were arrested overnight in the latest clashes around Place de la Republique in Paris, while police used tear gas to disperse protests in other cities including Rennes and Nantes.

"Consciously, the government is creating all the conditions for a social explosion, and it was foreseeable for months, as if they were looking for that," the leader of the far-right MPs in parliament, Marine Le Pen, told AFP in an interview Tuesday.

Excessive force?

Lawyers, magistrates and some politicians accused police officers of having made arbitrary arrests in an attempt to stifle the anti-government protests.

They cited as proof the fact that most of the detained demonstrators were released after a few hours, without any charges.

Paris police chief Laurent Nunez rejected the allegations, telling BFM television: "There are no unjustified arrests."

A survey on Sunday showed Macron's personal approval rating at just 28 percent, its lowest level since the height of the anti-government "Yellow Vest" protest movement in 2018-2019. 

Prominent Green MP Sandrine Rousseau said the coming visit by King Charles should be cancelled, telling BFM it was "unbelievable" that the president would dine with the monarch at the Versailles Palace outside Paris "while the people are protesting in the streets".

In an interview with Le Figaro, Macron's influential former prime minister Edouard Philippe advised the president to "broaden" his political base with "a coalition" that includes representatives of the opposition on the traditional right and left.

FRANCE

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