PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron sought to ease fears over his controversial pension reform on Thursday in a debate with concerned citizens over the plan that has sparked protests by train drivers, pilots, lawyers, doctors and police.
Macron's move to modernise France's retirement system is part of an election pledge to put the country on a solid financial footing -- a mission that calls for painful changes in a country where many people have seen their spending power decline.
Macron's government has been the target of more than a year of protests by so-called "yellow vests" who say he does not understand the day-to-day struggles of ordinary people faced with rising prices for products and services and shrinking income.
The president spent on Thursday evening seeking to win over citizens in the southern French city of Rodez in the Aveyron region, where a third of the population is over 60.
He told the crowd he wanted to "clarify misunderstandings" over the plan to streamline the pension system.
"What is clear is that I want to move towards a system that builds the future," he said.
But those who stood up to ask questions expressed deep concerns.
"The older I get the more the age (of retirement) increases," said one 53-year-old nurse.
During his 2017 presidential campaign, Macron had pledged not to touch the legal retirement age of 62 for most workers.
But Jean-Paul Delevoye, leading a reform project, has proposed making a full pension available only from 64. People who retire earlier would have to accept a lower pension: five percent less for someone who stops working at 63, for example.
Delevoye has also suggested cancelling the more advantageous pensions enjoyed by some professions, including public transport and utilities workers, sailors, notaries and even Paris Opera workers.
The government has vowed to hold consultations with labour representatives while the bill is debated in parliament, with a vote expected next year.
Not well received
An opinion poll published on Thursday said 43 per cent of French people oppose the reform.
The country has seen two massive public transport strikes in recent weeks by tram and train workers opposed to changes they say will force them to work for longer.
Another transport strike is planned from December 5.
There have also been protests by lawyers, nurses, doctors and airline pilots.
On Wednesday, thousands of police took to the streets of Paris, with pension reform among their gripes.
The labour action adds to the pressure already brought to bear by "yellow vests" protesting around France every Sunday for most of the past year.
Last week, the government unveiled a draft 2020 budget with tax cuts of 9.3 billon euros (US$10 billion) for households in response to the uprising, making it unlikely Macron will honour his pledge of balancing the government's books by 2022.
Right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy raised France's retirement age from 60 to 62 in 2010 despite months of protests that brought millions onto the streets. — AFP