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Macron Tries To Calm Tensions Over Pension Reform Plan


In France, a strike over proposed changes to government pensions is now on Day 28. In his New Year's Eve address, President Emmanuel Macron says the government isn't planning to back down. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Charles de Gaulle gave the first New Year's Eve address in 1960. Since then, presidents have used it to speak of the nation's values or bring people together in times of difficulty.



BEARDSLEY: Last night, Macron touted the economic reforms he's carried out since taking office and laid out a sweeping vision for France for the next decade. He said the French people had always come together in solidarity, like when Notre Dame caught fire. They would do so again, he said.


MACRON: (Through interpreter) I know that some are afraid of changes, but is this a reason to abandon what we've started? No, because it's our children who will pay the price. This is why I will complete this reform of our pension system. It is a project of justice and social progress. It ensures that our system is more equal and universal.

BEARDSLEY: But the unions say Macron's plan will penalize those with physically demanding jobs by making them work longer. Macron wants to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. This morning, Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-line CGT union, called on the French to strike and protest even harder.


PHILIPPE MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) Faced with a president who does such an exercise in self-satisfaction and who considers that everything is going well in this country, we need to sound the alarm even louder because he obviously hasn't understood that there is a problem.

BEARDSLEY: But it's not just hard-liners who are against Macron's plans. The latest poll shows 51% of the French public support the strikers.


BEARDSLEY: At this New Year's Eve dinner, everyone gathered to watch Macron's speech. No one here understands the pension overhaul. Retired schoolteacher Francoise Lefebvre (ph) believes it will force people to work longer for less, and she wants the strikers to continue.

FRANCOISE LEFEBVRE: Teachers will lose a lot of money when we will be retired, so they have to be strong together.

BEARDSLEY: But retired airline steward Philippe Gibert (ph) thinks Macron is doing a good job with the pension reform and when he overhauled the French labor market last year to make France more competitive. Gibert says Macron has an image problem because people think he's arrogant and a president of the rich.

PHILIPPE GIBERT: I think people don't like him mainly because he began his presidency with measures for people who have money. And this was very bad for his image. And after that, he tries to change things, but people don't accept that because they believe he works for people with money.

BEARDSLEY: Unions say they will continue the transport strike that has hobbled commuter trains and paralyzed the Paris metro system. They're also threatening to block oil refineries and bring the country to a standstill, sending an even tougher message to Macron.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.