- Police fire tear gas on the outskirts of the Paris protest
- The government wants to raise the retirement age by two years to 64
- Railways, schools and refineries among those affected by the strike
- Macron’s reformist credentials are at stake in the dispute
- Opinion polls show widespread opposition to the pension reform
PARIS, Jan 19 (Reuters) – More than a million people marched through French cities on Thursday to denounce President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age, with a wave of nationwide strikes halting trains, blocking refineries and slowing power generation.
Buoyed by their success, the country’s leading unions called for a second day of strikes on January 31 in a bid to force Macron and his government to back down on a pension reform plan that would see most people work an extra two years. 64.
“Now the government finds itself with its back against the wall,” the unions said in a joint statement. “Everyone knows that raising the retirement age only benefits employers and the wealthy.”
The protests are a major test for Macron, who said on Thursday that his pension overhaul was “fair and responsible” and necessary to help keep state finances on a sound footing. Opinion polls show that most French are against the measure.
About 1.1 million demonstrators took to the streets in dozens of protests across France, the interior ministry said, more than during a first wave of street protests when Macron first tried to pass the reform in 2019. He shelved that attempt when the COVID pandemic broke out.
Police fired tear gas during periodic clashes with hooded youths on the outskirts of the Paris rally. Several dozen arrests were made.
“It is wages and pensions that must be increased, not the retirement age,” read a large banner carried by workers in Tours, western France.
“I will have to prepare my walker if the reform goes through,” said Isabelle, 53, a social worker, saying her job was too hard to add two more years.
The government says the pension reform is essential to ensure the system does not break down. Pushing back the retirement age by two years and extending the payment period would bring in an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.1 billion) in annual pension contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027, according to labor ministry estimates.
Unions argue there are other ways to fund pensions, such as taxing the super-rich or increasing employer contributions or the well-off pensioners.
“This problem can be solved in another way through taxation. Workers will not have to pay for the public deficit,” said Laurent Berger, the head of the CFDT, France’s largest trade union.
The challenge for unions is to turn opposition to the reform – and anger over a cost-of-living crisis – into a mass social protest which may ultimately force the government to change tack.
Union leaders said Thursday was just the beginning.
The pension reform still needs to go through parliament, where Macron has lost his absolute majority but hopes to get it passed with the support of conservatives.
“Let’s continue to debate and convince,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne wrote on Twitter.
Train drivers, teachers and refinery workers were among those who walked off their jobs, as well as half the workforce at state-run nuclear power producer EDF.
The high-speed train between cities and local trains in Paris was seriously disrupted, the SNCF train operator said.
At the busy Gare du Nord station, people rushed to catch the few trains still running, while staff in yellow vests helped crippled commuters.
Restaurant worker Beverly Gahinet, who missed work because her train was canceled, said she agreed with the strike even though she did not participate.
But not everyone was so understanding.
“It’s always the same (people) who strike … and we have to put up with it,” said real estate worker Virginie Pinto as she struggled to find a subway to go to work.
Some unionists have spoken of reviving the spirit of 1995, when Jacques Chirac’s government requisitioned tourist boats on the River Seine to ferry commuters to work and backed a pension overhaul after weeks of transport strikes.
But unions’ ability to bring chunks of the eurozone’s second-largest economy to a standstill and force governments to turn around isn’t what it used to be.
A 2007 ban on wildcat strikes and a requirement for strikers to guarantee a minimum of public services has limited the ability of unions to wear down governments’ reform ambitions. Homework and other changes in work practices can also blunt their impact.
Still, the strike halted ferry crossings between Dover and Calais, a major sea route for trade between Britain and the continent.
EDF and grid operator RTE data showed electricity production fell with around 10% of the total electricity supply, prompting France to increase imports.
Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, Michaela Cabrera, Yiming Woo, Antony Paone, Tassilo Hummel, Forrest Crellin, Juliette Jabkhiro, Geert de Clercq, Blandine Henault in Paris, Ingrid Melander in Tours, Eric Gaillard in Cannes, Stephane Mahe in Saint-Nazaire, Marine Strauss in Brussels; Author: Ingrid Melander and Richard Lough; Editing by Nick Macfie and Andrea Ricci
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