PARIS (AP) – Workers in many French cities took to the streets on Thursday to reject proposed pension changes that would push back the retirement age, amid a day of nationwide strikes and protests seen as a major test for Emmanuel Macron and his presidency .
Demonstrations gathered thousands of people in the cities of Paris, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes, Lyon and elsewhere as strikes severely disrupted transport, schools and other public services across the country.
French workers would have to work longer before receiving a pension under the new rules – with the nominal retirement age rising from 62 to 64. In a country with an aging population and rising life expectancy, where everyone receives a state pension, Macron’s government says the reform is the only way to keep the system solvent-free.
Unions argue that pension reform threatens hard-won rights and propose a tax on the wealthy or higher wage contributions from employers to fund the pension system. According to surveys, most French people are also against the reform.
More than 200 rallies are expected across France on Thursday, including a large rally in Paris attended by all of France’s major unions.
CFDT union leader Laurent Berger called the government’s plans an “unfair” reform of BFMTV and urged workers to “peacefully take to the streets to say they don’t agree”.
Police unions opposed to pension reform are also taking part, while those on duty brace for possible violence if extremist groups join the demonstrations.
According to the railway authority SNCF, most trains across France will be cancelled, including some international services. Around 20% of flights from Paris Orly Airport are canceled and airlines warn of delays.
Electricity workers pledged to reduce power supply in protest.
The Ministry of National Education said that between 34% and 42% of teachers were on strike, depending on the school. The high school student unions were expected to join the protests.
Thierry Desassis, a retired teacher, called the government’s plan “an aberration”.
“At 64 you start having health problems. I’m 68 and in good health, but I see doctors more often now,” he said.
The strike also affected some monuments. The Palace of Versailles was closed on Thursday, while the Eiffel Tower warned of possible disruption and the Louvre Museum said some exhibition spaces will remain closed.
Many French workers expressed mixed feelings about the government’s plan, citing the complexity of the pension system.
Selim Draia, 48, an animator, said some changes might be needed, “but to rush through it like this — I think the country is divided and polarized enough to take the time to talk.”
Quentin Coelho, 27, a Red Cross worker, felt he had to work Thursday even though he understood “most of the strikers’ demands”. With an aging population in the country, he said raising the retirement age “is not an efficient strategy. If we do it now, the government might decide to raise it further in 30 or 50 years. We cannot predict it.”
Coelho said he doesn’t trust the government and is already saving money for his pension.
Liliane Ferreira Marques, a 40-year-old Brazilian shop assistant from Boussy-Saint-Antoine, south of Paris, said she supports the strikers’ demands but can’t afford to go on strike because she’s “being paid the minimum wage”.
French Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt acknowledged “concerns” raised by the pension plans, which would require “extra effort” from workers. He urged the strikers not to block the country’s economy. “The right to strike is a freedom, but we don’t want blockades,” he said on LCI television.
Dussop justified the decision to postpone the retirement age by saying that the government had rejected other options such as raising taxes – which he said would hurt the economy and cost jobs – or cuts in pensions.
The French government will formally present the pension law on Monday and go to parliament next month. Their success will depend in part on the scale and duration of the strikes and protests.
The proposed changes mean that workers must have worked for at least 43 years to be entitled to a full pension. For those who do not meet this condition, like many women who have interrupted their careers to raise their children or those who have studied long and entered the workforce late, the retirement age would remain unchanged at 67 years.
Those who started work early, under the age of 20, and workers with serious health problems would receive early retirement.
Protracted strikes hit Macron’s latest attempt to raise the retirement age in 2019. He eventually withdrew it after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
AP journalist Alexander Turnbull contributed to the story.