Macron, under pressure, mulling changes to pension plan

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron is ready to make changes to his unpopular pension reform plans, an official said Wednesday, one day after hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets across the country .

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was to hold key, separate negotiations later Wednesday with unions and employers’ organizations on potential amendments to the reform package.

“The President … won’t abandon the project,” an aide to Macron said, adding that while he won’t change the nature of the reform he is “willing to improve it.”

The official was speaking anonymously in accordance with the presidency’s customary practices.

The government didn’t rule out potential changes to its plan to delay the age of retirement on full pension — which is the main cause of discontent — by two years, from 62 to 64.

Government spokeswoman Sibeth NDiaye said the retirement age is a “proposal” from the government should a deal with unions prove unattainable. Yet she insisted any changes must preserve the financing of the new system.

The planned reforms aim at unifying France’s 42 different pension regimes into a single one, which would abolish special provisions allowing certain workers to retire as early as in their 50s. They would also keep the system financially viable.

“We must find a compromise,” Macron’s aide said.

The government wants a “pause” in transport strikes during Christmas holidays, but expects new street protests at the beginning of next year “because this is the normal course of things , “ he said.

The government plans to formally present the pension bill in January. The text will then need to be approved by parliament, where Macron’s party has the majority.

Macron himself is not planning to get involved in the negotiations nor to make any announcement in coming days.

On Wednesday, he appointed a junior minister for pensions, Laurent Pietraszewski, a 53-year-old lawmaker with expertise on the issue.

The nomination comes after the senior politician who had developed the new pension system, Jean-Paul Delevoye, resigned Monday over potential conflicts of interest in a major blow to the government.

Hard left unions strongly reject Macron’s project and have called for persevering with the strikes during the holidays.

But the government had long hoped that France’s largest union, the center-left, reformist CFDT, would back the project.

CFDT Secretary-General Laurent Berger has said he was in favor of a “universal and fair” new system, but that delaying the age of retirement was a “red line.” His union joined the protest movement last week after the government detailed the planned measures.

Recent polls show a majority of the French support the strikes and protests against the new system, which they fear will make them work longer in return for lower pensions.