- The government wants to raise the retirement age by two years to 64
- Railroads, schools and refineries are among those affected by the strike
- Macron’s reformist credentials are at odds
- Polls show widespread opposition to pension reform
NICE/TOURS, Jan 19 (Portal) – French workers went on strike on Thursday, joining nationwide demonstrations, halting trains and cutting power generation in a nationwide day of protests against plans by the government to raise the retirement age by two years to 64 to raise
The disruptions are a major test for President Emmanuel Macron, who says his pension reform plan, which opinion polls say is wildly unpopular, is crucial to ensuring the system doesn’t go bust.
Delaying the retirement age by two years and increasing the length of time you contribute would generate an additional €17.7 billion ($19.1 billion) in annual pension contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027, the Labor Department estimates.
“This reform is necessary and fair,” Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt told LCI TV.
But the protesters had a different opinion.
“Wages and pensions must be increased, not the retirement age,” read a large banner carried by workers who opened the protest march in Tours, western France.
“I’ll have to get my walker ready if the reform goes through,” said Isabelle, 53, a social worker, saying her job is too tough to add two more years.
Brigitte Meny, an early retiree, said she was protesting to show solidarity with former colleagues.
“Sixty-four, that’s too old,” she said. “And I’m also here because I’m fed up with Macron.”
In Nice in southern France, a large banner read: “No to reform”.
Unions argue that there are other ways to keep the pension system viable, such as taxing the super-rich or increasing employer contributions or affluent pensioners.
The challenge for them is to turn opposition to reform – and anger at a cost-of-living crisis – into a mass social protest that could eventually force the government to change course.
Union leaders, who are expected to announce more strikes and protests later in the evening, said Thursday was just the beginning.
“We need a lot of people to join the protests,” Laurent Berger, leader of France’s largest trade union, the CFDT, told BFM TV. “People are against this reform … we have to show it (on the streets).”
Pension reform has yet to pass Parliament, where Macron has lost his outright majority but hopes to push it through with Conservative support.
Engine drivers, teachers and refinery workers were among those who walked down. Radio France Inter broadcast its music playlist instead of its usual programme, and bus drivers and officials also went on strike.
Only between one in three and one in five high-speed TGV lines were operating, and there were hardly any local or regional trains, rail operator SNCF said.
In Paris, some metro stations were closed and traffic was seriously disrupted as few trains ran.
At the busy Gare du Nord train station, people rushed to the few trains that were still running while employees in yellow vests helped exhausted commuters.
Restaurant worker Beverly Gahinet, who missed work because her train was canceled, said she agreed with the strike even if she wasn’t taking part.
But not everyone was so understanding.
“I don’t understand, it’s always the same (people) who go on strike… and we have to put up with that,” real estate worker Virginie Pinto said as she struggled to find a subway to get to work.
A 2007 ban on wildcat strikes and strike restrictions to ensure a minimum level of public services have limited unions’ ability to crush government reform ambitions.
The fact that working from home has become much more common since the pandemic could also have an impact.
TAX THE RICH?
Public sector workers are often at the forefront of strikes, and about seven in 10 primary school teachers have walked out, and almost as many in secondary schools, their unions said, although the Department of Education gave much lower figures.
In Paris, students blocked at least one high school in support of the strike action.
Data from EDF and grid operator RTE showed that electricity production had fallen by around 12% of total electricity supply, prompting France to increase imports.
Deliveries have been blocked at TotalEnergies (TTEF.PA) refineries in France, union and company officials said. Patrick Pouyanne, CEO of TotalEnergies, said on Wednesday that one day of strikes would not disrupt refinery operations, but that could change if protests continue.
The impact on air travel was largely limited to a reduction in flights of around 20% at Paris’ second largest airport, Orly. Air France said it operated all of its long-haul flights and 90% of its short- and medium-haul flights.
Macron and several of his ministers, meanwhile, were in Barcelona on Thursday for a meeting with Spanish officials.
Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, Michaela Cabrera, Dominique Vidalon, Yiming Woo, Antony Paone, Tassilo Hummel, Forrest Crellin, Juliette Jabkhiro in Paris, Eric Gaillard in Cannes, Marine Strauss in Brussels; writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Nick Macfie
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