Emmanuel Macron faced the wrath of pensioners across France who accused the president on Thursday of “bleeding” them dry by raising taxes on the aged to offset cuts on charges for workers.
The groundswell of discontent from older citizens – many of whom voted for Mr Macron last year – came a week before unions launch a day-long walkout on March 22 against plans to end the jobs-for-life status and early retirement age of SNCF national rail workers.
Civil servants protesting against low pay and the rise of subcontractors and part-time contracts will also join in.
Thousands of retirees took to the streets in Paris and other big cities. "We’re not the gilded generation," said Michel Salingue of the FGR-FP union, adding that the average monthly French pension was just 1,300 euros.
"We’ve contributed more than our share already," he said.
“You’ve really bled us dry,” one pensioner told Mr Macron in Tours in central France.
But buoyed by his success in loosening France’s rigid labour laws and slashing wealth and capital gains taxes, Mr Macron was in no mood to backtrack.
“We have lowered income taxes by 30 percent so that working people can pay for your pensions,” he responded.
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“If I don’t make an effort for those who work, there’ll be nobody left to pay for your pension”, he told irate retirees, adding that they had stopped work at the same age as their parents while their life expectancy had risen by up to 15 years.
"Some people will complain and don’t want to understand, but that’s France," he said.
The pensioners were joined by retirement home workers across the country protesting against low pay, poor working conditions and a severer shortfall in staffing levels.
The demonstrations came a day after Mr Macron’s government rubber-stamped a bill to drive through via decree the biggest shake-up of France’s railways since they were nationalised in 1930s.
The reform is due to help the debt-ridden rail operator prepare for the arrival of foreign competition starting next year. The prime minister has warned that SNCF trains cost 30 per cent more to run than rivals and that the industry would “hit the wall” if nothing was done.
While it strips rail workers of some of their perks, the changes only affect new recruits.
But rail workers are incensed and have threatened to launch a wave of rolling strikes not seen since 1995, when three weeks of protests over their “special status” led to a humiliating government U-turn.
“Better three weeks of strikes than 30 years of privatisation,” said Frédéric Villedieu of Sud Rail union told FranceTVInfo.
Philippe Martinez, leader of the CGT union, said the government’s decision to push the reform through via decree while saying it was open to discussion was “like putting a pistol to our heads and saying: ‘Let’s talk’.”
“We’re heading for a trial of strength, that’s for sure,” warned Roger Dillsenseger, head of the UNSA union.
Elisabeth Borne, the transport minister said unions had their head in the sand and that “if you sweep something under the carpet, it doesn’t go away”. Despite claims to the contrary, there was, she added, no question of privatising the SNCF.
Some have called the rail reform Mr Macron’s “Thatcher moment” as he takes on France’s unions where they still wield the most power.
However, that power has waned since the 1990s as has public support for the rail worker cause; a poll out on Thursday showed two thirds of the French were against rolling strikes.
However, pollster Odoxa warned: "Beware. That doesn’t mean blockages will not happen or that the government won’t take a hit if the conflict and stoppages spread."
The coming protests will be a litmus test ahead of a slew of other reforms this year from a controversial overhaul of unemployment benefits to cutting the number of seats in parliament by a third.