- The government wants to raise the two-year retirement age to 64
- Railways, schools and refineries are among those affected
- Macron’s reformist credentials are at stake
- Opinion polls show broad opposition to pension reform
NICE/TOURS (Reuters) – French workers went on strike and marched across the country on Thursday, halting trains and shutting down electricity production in a day of nationwide protest against government plans to raise the two-year retirement age to 64.
The halts are a major test for President Emmanuel Macron, who says his pension reform plan, which opinion polls show is deeply unpopular, is needed to ensure the system does not bankrupt.
Postponing the retirement age by two years and extending the payment period would bring in 17.7 billion euros ($19.1 billion) in annual pension contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027, the Labor Ministry estimates.
“This reform is necessary and just,” Labor Minister Olivier Dussopp told LCI television.
But the protesters disagreed.
A large banner carried by workers at the opening of the protest march in Tours in western France read: “It is the salaries and pensions that must be increased, not the retirement age.”
“I will have to set up my walking frame if the repair is done,” said Isabelle, 53, a social worker, who works in the social field, adding that her job was too demanding to add another two years.
Early retiree Brigitte Minnie said she was protesting to express her solidarity with her former colleagues.
“Sixty-four is very old,” she said. “And I’m here too because I’m tired of Macron.”
In Nice, in the south of France, a large banner read: “No to reform.”
Unions argue that there are other ways to ensure the survival of the pension system such as taxing the super-rich or increasing employer contributions or those of better-off pensioners.
Their challenge is to turn opposition to reform – and anger over the cost of living crisis – into mass social protest that may eventually force the government to change course.
Union leaders, who are expected to announce more strikes and protests in the evening, said Thursday was just the beginning.
“We need a lot of people to join the protests,” Laurent Berger, president of France’s largest trade union, CFDT, told BFM TV. “People are against this reform…we need to show it (in the streets)”.
Pension reform still needs to pass through parliament, where Macron has lost his absolute majority but hopes to pass it with the backing of conservatives.
Train drivers, teachers and refinery workers were among those who left their jobs. Radio France Inter is running its own music playlist instead of its usual programmes, and bus drivers and civil servants have also gone on strike.
Rail operator SNCF said only between one of three and five high-speed TGV lines were operating, with hardly any local or regional trains running.
In Paris, some metro stations were closed and traffic was seriously disrupted, with few trains running.
At the busy Gare du Nord station, people scrambled to catch the few trains still running as staff in yellow vests helped weary passengers.
Restaurant worker Beverly Jahent, who missed work because her train was canceled, said she agreed to strike even if she didn’t participate.
But not everyone understood that.
“I don’t understand, it’s always the same (people) on strike…and we have to put up with it,” said Virginie Pinto, a real estate worker, as she struggled to find a metro to go to work.
A 2007 ban on random strikes and restrictions on strikes to ensure a minimum level of public services restricted unions’ ability to dampen the reformist ambitions of governments.
The fact that working from home is becoming more popular now because of the pandemic could also have an impact.
taxes for the rich?
Public sector workers are often at the forefront of strikes, and about seven out of 10 teachers in primary schools have stopped working, and almost as many in secondary schools, their unions said, although the Education Ministry gave much lower numbers.
In Paris, students surrounded at least one high school in support of the strike.
Data from EDF and grid operator RTE showed electricity production falling by about 12% of total energy supply, prompting France to increase imports.
Shipments blocked at TotalEnergies’ (TTEF.PA) Union officials and companies said that refineries in France. Total Energy Chief Executive Officer Patrick Pouyanne said on Wednesday that one day strikes will not disrupt the refinery’s operations, but that could change if the protests continue.
The impact on air traffic was largely limited to a reduction of around 20% of flights at Orly, Paris’s second largest airport. Air France said it operates all of its long-haul flights and 90% of its short- and medium-haul flights.
Meanwhile, Macron and several of his ministers were in Barcelona on Thursday for a meeting with Spanish officials.
(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, Michaela Cabrera, Dominique Vidalon, Yiming Wu, Anthony Bowen, Tassilo Hamill, Forrest Crellin and Juliet Jabkeru in Paris, Eric Gaillard in Cannes and Maren Strauss in Brussels; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Nick McPhee
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