Strikes and protests across France as Macron faces pensions showdown

By Aurelien Breeden

PARIS — Classrooms in France were empty, trains were still, and the Paris metro was heavily disrupted Thursday (19) as hundreds of thousands of workers around the country went on strike and protested President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the legal age of retirement.

More than 200 demonstrations were planned, and authorities expected 550,000 to 750,000 protesters to march on the first day of what could be a prolonged showdown between the government and a united front of labour unions.

Teachers, railway workers and employees at public radio stations and oil refineries went on strike; traffic at the northern port of Calais ground to a halt; and the Eiffel Tower was closed. Labour unions at France’s national electric utility company, where nearly 45% of employees were on strike, said they had intentionally lowered output.

The walkout represents a crucial test for both the unions, who need a show of strength, and for Macron, who is hoping to forge ahead despite widespread popular opposition to his plans, which include a measure to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

“If there is no positive response from the government, today is a first step, and there will be a second step,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT labour union, told reporters before the march in Paris.

The strikes and protests were an echo of 2019, when Macron first tried to retool France’s complex but generous state-backed pension system by overhauling it entirely. Those plans prompted huge demonstrations until the coronavirus pandemic forced the government to drop them.

Macron’s newest plan is a more straightforward attempt to balance the system’s budget by making the French work longer.

The plan, presented last week and expected to be discussed by parliament in February, would also accelerate a previous change that increased the number of years that workers have to pay into the system to get a full pension.

But the latest public opinion polls show that roughly 60% of French people are opposed to Macron’s plans, despite measures that the government says will keep the system fair, such as continued exemptions allowing those who begin working at younger ages to retire earlier. Older job seekers, who have found themselves effectively shut out of France’s labour market, are particularly worried about the prospect of delayed retirement.

By noon Thursday, hundreds of thousands of protesters had marched in Nantes, Marseille, Toulouse and other cities, chanting and carrying signs with slogans like “Retirement before arthritis.” The biggest protest was in the capital, Paris, where the Place de la République was crammed with demonstrators.

Fearful of the clashes between police officers in riot gear and violent protesters that often mar French demonstrations, many stores in Paris had boarded up their windows. Over 10,000 police officers were deployed across the country to bolster security at the protests, authorities said.

In Paris, near the Place de la Bastille, Thomas Ouvriard, 20, a political science university student, and Ignacio Franzone, 23, a worker at the French post office, smiled as they hoisted up a gigantic poster that depicted Macron dressed as King Louis XIV with an unflinching stare.

“Of course in France, we have cut off the heads of kings in our past history,” Franzone said. “We’re not there yet with Macron, but we’re here to win this fight.”

Both men said they were protesting partly out of solidarity but also out of concern for their own futures. They argued that the government should fund the pension system by raising taxes on the wealthy and on companies, rather than by making people work longer.

“As it is, young people have a really hard time getting jobs, so we’re starting to work later in life and we’re going to have to keep working later,” Ouvriard said.

At midday Thursday, labour unions said that 65% to 70% of teachers were on strike in elementary, middle and high schools. The education ministry said the figure was lower, about 35% to 42%.

“The government has lost its first battle: convincing people that the reform is necessary,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the prominent leftist politician of the France Unbowed party, and a fierce opponent of Macron, told reporters in Marseille.

Nationwide, many trains were cancelled. In Paris, a handful of metro lines were completely shut down, and many were open only during rush hour or heavily disrupted. Service was also intermittent on many of the Paris region’s commuter lines, some of the busiest in Europe.

The disruptions did not fuel chaos in train stations, however, because many Parisians elected to work from home or use different modes of transportation.

Olivier Dussopt, the French labour minister, told the LCI news channel that the government respected the right of strikers to protest but did not want the country to come to a standstill.

“When it comes to pensions, there are always concerns,” Dussopt said. “We know that we are asking the French to collectively work more.”

“All pension reforms have had difficulties with public opinion,” Dussopt added. “For every French person, it is a very personal question.”

-New York Times



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