PARIS (AP) — President Emmanuel Macron sought to defend his unpopular pension plan Saturday in an effort to show he hears concerns of farmers and other ordinary citizens at France's biggest farm fair.
The pension changes meant to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, amid other measures, were among recurrent topics during the visit at the Paris Agricultural Fair, where Macron was scheduled to spend all day.
“I came here to support our farmers who are working hard, who have small pensions that we have substantially improved,” Macron said.
A few activists briefly shouted “no to the pension plan” after he had just inaugurated the event early Saturday, brandishing cardboard posters written “64 years, it’s dead” and “metro, work, tomb.”
Macron has vowed to go ahead with the reform despite a series of strikes and protests in the country.
“That reform is important because it will enable us to save” state pensions that all workers receive, “a French treasure,” Macron insisted. The system is projected to dive into deficit in the coming decade.
“We cannot decrease workers’ purchasing power, we cannot decrease our retirees’ pensions, therefore there is only one solution: working more,” Macron argued.
Christian Asna, a cattle raiser in southwestern France, urged Macron to deliver on his promise to raise farmers’ minimum pension as part of the changes, now being discussed at parliament.
Macron "promised to remove the farming special pension scheme" so that farmers can benefit from the more generous mainstream workers' scheme, Asna explained. "Now, farmers retire with less than 700 euros ($740) per month, and he promised us minimum 1,200 euros ($1,268) per month,” he added.
To a woman criticizing the government's pension plan as contrary to social progress, Macron answered: “Social progress is not letting farmers retire with (almost) no pension.”
Later Saturday, a man could be heard shouting “we want a wealth tax to pay for pensions” instead of raising the retirement age. Macron appeared to disregard the call.
Macron met for hours with beef, pork, milk producers, vintners and others in efforts to show he is paying attention to their daily concerns. He faced a few heated discussions and punctual boos — yet he was mostly welcomed with respect, sometimes applause and thank-you's.
The Paris Agricultural Fair, one of the world's largest farm fairs, is a popular event drawing crowds every year.
Amid other areas of concern, several farmers raised their fears that a potential European trade deal with the South American bloc Mercosur would bring unfair competition to their own products.
Macron insisted that he would keep opposing such a deal as long as South American producers don’t respect the same environment and health standards as Europeans.
Macron also promised a plan to be better prepared for drought and to use water with caution, as some regions of France are already facing restrictions following several weeks with no significant rainfall. Last summer, France suffered its most severe drought ever recorded.
In reply to an activist who abruptly asked him what he’s doing about the climate, Macron answered: "I’m trying to move forward, to make useful things.”