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France signals flexibility in face of pension reform resistance

Updated: 2023-01-05 09:55
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French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu, Labour, Employment and Integration Minister Olivier Dussopt and members of the French government arrive at the Elysee Palace for the first weekly cabinet meeting of the year in Paris, France, Jan 4, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

PARIS — The French government said on Tuesday it could be flexible on its plan to raise the retirement age to 65, part of a hugely controversial pension reform project pushed by President Emmanuel Macron.

Speaking ahead of crunch talks with unions that have fiercely resisted any change, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told Franceinfo radio that the age of 65 is "not set in stone".

She added that "other solutions "could help the government reach its target of balancing the pensions system by 2030.

She said the plan, a flagship domestic policy of Macron's second term, would be presented to the cabinet on Jan 23 before being debated in parliament at the beginning of February.

Full details of the plan, with its banner policy of raising the retirement age from the current level of 62 having been rejected by the unions, are to be unveiled on Jan 10.

Macron's overhaul would be one of the most extensive in a series of pension reforms enacted by successive governments on both the left and right in recent decades aiming to end budget shortfalls.

Former prime minister Edouard Philippe summed up politicians' frustration at failing to manage a pensions breakthrough despite longstanding attempts.

"The English have their Ireland problem, the Americans their weapons problem, and we have our pensions problem," he told Agence France-Presse recently.

Pandemic impact

Philippe's own attempt at pension reform when he was Macron's prime minister between 2017 and 2020 was abandoned when the COVID-19 pandemic changed the government's priorities. A majority of French — 54 percent — oppose the reform, a Harris-Interactive poll showed on Monday.

"The only group in favor are retired people of 65 and over," Frederic Dabi, head of the Ifop polling institute, said.

The revamp was supposed to have been announced in mid-December but Macron, whose ruling party lost its overall parliament majority in polls last year, delayed the announcement to allow further talks.

But he said he would not be sidetracked. "This year will be the year of pension reform," he said in his traditional New Year's address.

He promised a new system would be implemented "by the end of the summer".

Later on Tuesday, Borne was due to hold new discussions with unions, which have already signaled that even a less ambitious pension age increase to 64 would not be acceptable.

Any change in the pension age would be "a red line", Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union, said.


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