Macron stands firm on pension bill as protests escalate
By Elizabeth Pineau and Pascal Rossignol
PARIS (Reuters) -French President Emmanuel Macron drew an angry response from unions and opposition parties on Wednesday when he said he would press on with plans to raise the pension age, rejecting calls for a U-turn in response to growing public anger.
Unions said a ninth nationwide day of protests and strikes on Thursday would draw huge crowds against what they described as Macron's "scorn" and "lies."
"Do you think I enjoy doing this reform? No," Macron said in a TV interview. "But there are not a hundred ways to balance the accounts ... this reform is necessary."
Polls show a wide majority of French are opposed to the pension legislation, which will raise the age at which one can draw a pension by two years to 64.
Protests against the bill have drawn huge crowds in rallies organised by unions since January.
Most have been peaceful, but anger has mounted since the government pushed the bill through parliament without a vote last week. The past six nights have seen fierce demonstrations across France with bins set ablaze and scuffles with police.
Protesters on Wednesday also blocked train stations in the southern cities of Nice and Toulouse.
"Between ... polls and the general interest of the country, I choose the general interest," Macron said, decrying "extreme violence" which he at one point compared to the January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Aides had said the TV interview would be aimed at "calming things down." And Macron, while saying he had "no regrets" added that he wanted to improve his fraught relationship with labour unions and involve them more in future decisions.
But initial reactions showed his comments might have had the opposite effect.
"Lies!," the moderate, reform-minded Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, France's largest union, tweeted, accusing Macron of "rewriting history" after he said unions had not offered an alternative to his pension bill.
Philippe Martinez, who leads the more hardline CGT union, told French media that Macron was mocking workers with what he called an "outlandish" interview.
"The best response we can give the president is to have millions of people on strike and in the streets tomorrow," Martinez said.
Thursday's strike will see train traffic seriously disrupted, with airports also affected, and teachers among many professions walking off the job, while rolling strikes at oil depots and refineries and among garbage collectors carry on.
The ongoing protests could impact a planned state visit next week of Britain's King Charles, a Buckingham Palace source said.
The latest wave of protests and violence represents the most serious challenge to the French president's authority since the "Yellow Vest" revolt four years ago.
"He fanned the flames," Laurent Delaporte, a CGT union leader in the port of Le Havre said of Macron's interview. "How can we hear that the street has no legitimacy?"
The interview was broadcast on lunch-hour news bulletins mostly watched by pensioners, the only demographic that is not dead set against the reform, which far-right leader Marine Le Pen said showed disdain for workers.
"He insults all French people, in general, all those who ... are protesting," Le Pen said.
While the opposition has called for Macron to fire his prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, who has been at the forefront of the pension reform, Macron backed her and said that he had tasked her to work on new reforms.
None of that convinced a group of union members watching the interview in the southern France city of Nice.
"Tomorrow we will be on the streets again to demonstrate against the pension reform and demand its withdrawal," said one of them, CFDT union member Sophie Trastour.
(Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten, Jean-Stephane Brosse, Dominique Vidalon, ELizabeth Pineau, John Irish, Louise Dalmasso, Yiming Woo, Ardee Napolitano, Geert de Clercq, Eric Gaillard; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Christina Fincher, William Maclean)