French President Emmanuel Macron has said he heard people’s anger over raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, but insisted that it was needed to keep the pension system afloat as the population ages.
In a televised address to the nation, Mr Macron said “these changes were needed to guarantee everyone’s pension”, after he enacted the law on Saturday.
“They represent an effort, that’s true,” he said.
“Gradually working more means also producing more wealth for our whole country,” Mr Macron added.
“Has this reform been accepted? Obviously, no,” Mr Macron admitted.
Before his speech, opponents to the reform called for people to bang pots and pans in front of city halls across France during his address, with the rallying cry: “Macron won’t listen to us? We won’t listen to him!”
Many are rejecting the changes as unfair, arguing the government could have raised taxes on the wealthy or employers instead.
The evening address kicks off a likely arduous battle for the French president, who is trying to repair the damage done to his public image and politics by forcing the pension plan through parliament last month.
Mr Macron acknowledged “anger” over increasing prices and jobs that do not “allow too many French people to live well”.
Mr Macron said the door remains open for unions, which have already declined an invitation to meet with him on Tuesday.
He announced negotiations in the coming months about “key issues” such as improving employees’ income, pushing professional careers forward, better sharing wealth and improving working conditions, including for older workers.
Mr Macron hopes his proposals will help the country move away from the period of protests and strikes over the retirement age that threatens the ambitions of his remaining four years in power.
Opponents’ gatherings have been banned by authorities in the cities of Dijon and Marseille, with local prefectures arguing there is a risk of “public disorder”.
Earlier in Marseille, police arrested 13 people after gas and power meters were strewn outside a government building in an unusual trade union demonstration against pension changes.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Saturday that the government would move ahead with more reforms now that the pension law has been enacted.
“In the coming weeks and months … we are determined to accelerate,” she told the national council of Mr Macron’s Renaissance party.
Mr Macron notably committed to bringing the unemployment rate down to around 5%.
France’s unemployment rate recently reached 7.2%, its lowest rate since 2008.
Weakened in parliament, where his centrist alliance lost its absolute majority in legislative elections last year, Mr Macron’s government needs to get support from legislators from diverse political forces to push ahead with his programme.
That is likely to be an uphill task in the climate of protest sparked by his retirement changes that pick at France’s cherished social safety net.
Labour unions that have been at the forefront of protests, mobilising millions of marchers in 12 days of nationwide demonstrations and strikes since January, are vowing to fight on.
They called for another mass protest on May 1, which is International Workers’ Day.
The pension changes were enacted into law on Saturday, the day after the country’s constitutional body rejected some parts of the legislation but approved the higher minimum retirement age.
That key change – central to Mr Macron’s plan and the focus of opponents’ protests – was intended to be a showcase measure of Mr Macron’s second term.
But it has come at significant cost to the French president: opinion polls show his popularity has plunged to its lowest level in four years.