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French President Emmanuel Macron has insisted there will be no turning back on his plans for pension reform in France.POOL/AFP/Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron put a damper on his country’s New Year’s eve celebrations by telling his compatriots what none of them really wanted to hear.

In a televised Dec. 31 address, Mr. Macron told French citizens they would have to work more and retire later. He vowed that 2023 would be the year that his government finally tackled the third rail of French politics by reforming the country’s convoluted and expensive system of public pensions. And he described the challenge in epochal terms.

“In the long history of our nation, there have been generations who resisted, others who rebuilt and still others who extended the prosperity that had been achieved,” he said. “As far as we are concerned, it is up to us to face this new chapter of a difficult era… to take on the job of reforming a number of the pillars of our nation.”

For Mr. Macron’s opponents on the left and far-right alike, those were fighting words. And they pounced when Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne last week unveiled the details of the government’s pension reform package – including an increase in the retirement age to 64 from 62, and a lengthening of the contribution period required to be eligible for a full pension.

“This is not a speech, this is a declaration of social war,” Mathilde Panot, leader of the far-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) in the National Assembly, tweeted as Ms. Borne spoke.

France Insoumise and the coalition of four left-wing parties to which it belongs have aligned with the country’s main unions to organize several days of protest, starting on Thursday. Most of France’s trains and subways will be out of service and most teachers will walk off the job, paralyzing the country. More protests are planned in the coming weeks, including a strike at the country’s oil refineries that could lead to long lines and shortages at gas stations.

Thursday’s protests will be a first test for Mr. Macron and opponents of the reforms. Previous attempts at major pension reform have all failed in the face of public opposition, most famously in 1995, when unions shut down the country for three weeks.

Mr. Macron has insisted there will be no turning back this time. Pension reform is a legacy item he is unwilling to jettison in the name of political expediency. He intends to go down as a transformational president, as the one who finally changed entrenched French attitudes toward work and leisure that have left the country doing too little of the former and indulging too much in the latter.

His adversaries have other ideas. France Insoumise and its coalition partners in the New Ecologic and Social People’s Union (NUPES) are seeking to capitalize on public opposition to pension reform to recapture working-class voters that have defected to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. And the days of protest are an opportunity to shift attention away from the nasty power struggle and infighting within the NUPES coalition since last year’s legislative elections, when it won 131 assembly seats and deprived Mr. Macron’s coalition of an absolute majority.

Ms. Le Pen has called Mr. Macron’s pension reform package “a real scam.” Her party, which holds 89 seats, will also seek to block the reform, which she said “seeks to make the French people pay for the policy failures of recent years.” Her anti-immigrant party insists the solution to the actuarial Armageddon facing pensions is to get the French to have more babies.

Both the NUPES and National Rally officially favour lowering the retirement age to 60, which almost everyone privately agrees is never going to happen. The French retirement age is already among the lowest in the developed world. Most other European Union countries have already raised theirs to 65 and several have passed legislation to increase it to 67 in coming years.

France spends a whopping 14 per cent of its gross domestic product on public pensions, or about three times what Canada spends. The gap shrinks somewhat when private pensions are included, though it is still very large. And unlike private pensions, France’s public pensions are paid out of government coffers. Without major reform, the pension system threatens to send France’s overall public debt load to even scarier levels.

Nevertheless, Mr. Macron is taking a huge risk in pressing ahead with reform now. Memories are still fresh of the Yellow Vest protests that rocked the country in 2018 and 2019 and forced him to cancel a proposed carbon-tax increase and shelve his promise to reform the pension system during his first term in office. And inflation has left French workers feeling increasingly insecure about the future.

Pension reform could be the spark that inflames a country already on the edge.

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