French government plays down strike threat over pension reform

The French government on Wednesday played down the prospect of mass strikes and protests over pension reform which are expected to start next week.

All of France's main unions have called the first stoppages and rallies next Thursday to protest against the government's plan to raise the retirement age to 64 from its current level of 62, a change that is widely unpopular among the public.

Many observers expect a bitter battle over the next month that could lead to disruption to transport and public services.

"We're not focusing on the possibility of massive protests or the impact of these protests," spokesman Olivier Veran told reporters at a briefing.

"We've finished the phase of consultations and we are entering into the phase of explaining and informing."

Asked whether he was "scared" about the looming battle earlier in the day, he replied: "It doesn't scare me."

"In the modern history of our country, every time that people have needed to work a bit longer, every time we've needed to reform the pension system... there have been protests," he told the Franceinfo radio station.

President Emmanuel Macron, whose credibility is on the line with a reform he has championed since coming to power in 2017, called on his ministers on Wednesday to help sell the "essential and vital" change to a highly sceptical electorate.

He urged ministers to stress the "social progress" in the changes, such as a higher minimum pension of 1,200 euros ($1,287) a month and allowances for people in ill health or physically demanding jobs.

Veran said that "those that started work early will be able to retire at 58" and four out of 10 workers would not need to reach the new limit of 64 for a pension.

- 'Sadistic'-

Polls suggested that around two thirds of French people are currently against the changes and a majority support the call for protests.

Draft legislation is expected to be presented in the hung national parliament in early February, with Macron's minority MPs banking on support from the rightwing Republicans opposition group to pass it.

The far-right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen has announced its intention to be "the leader of opposition to the reform" -- a role also coveted by the hard-left France Unbowed party.

Le Pen called the reform "unfair and very brutal" on Wednesday, saying she thought Macron was being pressured by the European Union or was "sadistic" given the cost-of-living crisis caused by high inflation.

"I told the prime minister this, there's a sadistic side, like the child that pulls the wings off a fly," Le Pen told parliamentary journalists.

"At a time when French people are facing serious difficulties... with their household budgets collapsing, you're carrying out a reform of the pension system with extreme haste," she added.