A computer screen and a television broadcasting French President Emmanuel Macron's speech at the Elysée Palace. Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP
But in his keenly watched New Year's address, Macron gave no sign that he would back down on the plan, saying “the pension reform will be carried out.”
While acknowledging concerns about the plan, not least that it could require people to work longer, Macron said “these worries cannot lead us to inaction.”
“That would be abandoning those who the system has abandoned, youths who would pay the price for our inaction,” he said in the roughly 18-minute address.
The pension overhaul, a centrepiece of Macron's sweeping plan to reform the French economy and institutions, would sweep away 42 separate schemes for a single system the government says would be fairer and more sustainable.
But unions baulk at a new “pivot age” of 64 at which workers would qualify for a full pension, beyond the official retirement age of 62.
Since December 5, they have crippled train and metro services across the country, proving a key test of Macron's ability to implement his vow to reformFrance after coming to power in 2017.
The government has already said police and firefighters would still be able to retire earlier, and Macron said “we will take into account arduous tasks so that people who carry them out will be able to retire earlier.”
Macron's call for a “Christmas truce” during the strike went unheeded, upending travel plans for tens of thousands of people, and unions have vowed not to back down ahead of new talks with the government set for January 7.
Already another day of mass protests is set for January 9, when teachers, dockers, hospital workers and other public-sector employees are expected to join the strike for the day.
And energy workers at the hard-line CGT union called Tuesday for a three-day blockade at the country's oil refineries and fuel depots starting on January 7, raising the spectre of petrol shortages.
“This government isn't listening at all, we need to put more pressure on them,” Thierry Defresne, a union official at French energy giant Total, told AFP.
Macron's speech was his second major attempt at damage control, following last year's address at the height of the fiery “yellow vest” protests demanding improved living standards.
At the time he announced some 10 billion euros ($11.2 billion) in financial relief for low earners, and union leaders are hoping their strike, now in its 27th day, will also lead to concessions.
They have already surpassed a landmark three-week strike in 1995 that forced the government at the time to back down on its pension overhaul.
Tense New Year's
Reacting to Macron's comments, Yves Veyrier, secretary-general of the Force Ouvriere (FO) Union, one of France's biggest, said: “I don't get the impression that there is much room for negotiation.”
Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the France Unbowed (LFI) party, added on Twitter: “These are not (New Year) wishes but a declaration of war to the millions of French who refuse his reform.
The protest is now on course to exceed the longest transport strike in France, which lasted for 28 days in 1986 and early 1987. Support for the strike appears to be waning, with just 7.7 percent of employees at train operator SNCF on strike Tuesday, far below the levels seen when the protest began on December 5.
Just half of high-speed TGV trains were running and regional services remain severely disrupted, and most Paris metro lines were shut as crowds descended on the Champs-Elysées for a light show and fireworks.
But all the city's metro lines will stop at 6:30 pm (1730 GMT), except for two automated lines that will run until around 2:00 am.
Authorities have outlawed any “yellow vest” protests on the famed avenue for Tuesday night, and nearly 100,000 police officers will be on duty nationwide to try to prevent outbreaks of violence.
The government says the pensions overhaul is required to end deficits that could reach 17 billion euros ($19 billion) by 2025 if no action is taken.
Unions contest those calculations, while arguing that many people have arduous jobs that cannot be carried out beyond indefinitely.
Paris Opera dancers and other employees, who enjoy a special retirement regime going back to 1698, have joined the protests, cancelling dozens of performances over the holidays.
On Tuesday, the Opera's orchestra musicians played a protest concert on the steps outside the Bastille Opera for several hundred passers-by, many capturing the concert on cellphone cameras as cars clogged the nearby roundabout.