France's workers strike and protest amid plan to raise retirement age

Credit: Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP

At least 1.1 million people protested on the streets of Paris and other French cities on Thursday amid nationwide strikes against plans to raise the retirement age.

Seen as a major test for Emmanuel Macron and his presidency, strikes severely disrupted transport, schools and other public services across the country. Demonstrations gathered thousands of people in the cities of Paris, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes, Lyon and other places.

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. President Emmanuel Macron says the measure is needed to keep the pension system financially viable, but unions say it threatens hard-fought worker rights.During a news conference at a French-Spanish summit in Barcelona, Spain, Macron said that “we must do that reform” to “save” the pension system. “We will do it with respect, in a spirit of dialogue but also determination and responsibility,” he added.

Paris police said that 38 people had been detained. Selim Draia, 48, an animation artist, said some changes may be needed “but rushing through it like this. I think the country is divided and polarised enough to take the time to have a conversation."

The Ministry of National Education said some 34 to 42% of teachers were on strike. High school student unions were also expected to join the protests.

High school students block their school on a day of nationwide strikes and protests in France. Credit: AP/Nicolas Garriga

Thierry Desassis, a retired teacher, called the government’s plan “an aberration.”

“It’s at 64 that you start having health problems. I’m 68 and in good health but I’ve started seeing doctors more often,” he said.

In a country with an aging population and growing life expectancy, where everyone receives a state pension, Macron’s government said reform is the only way to keep the system solvent.

Unions argue the pension overhaul threatens hard-fought rights, and propose a tax on the wealthy or more payroll contributions from employers to finance the pension system. Polls suggest most French people also oppose the reform.

More than 200 rallies were staged around France on Thursday, including a large one in Paris involving all France’s major unions. The Interior Ministry said more than 1.1 million people protested across France, including 80,000 in Paris. Unions said more than 2 million people took part nationwide, and 400,000 in Paris.

Emboldened by the high turnout, French unions announced new strikes and protests for January 31.Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT union, called the government's plans a “unfair” reform on BFMTV and called on workers to “peacefully come (to the streets) to say they disagree”.

Police unions opposed to the retirement reform are also taking part, while those who are on duty are bracing for potential violence if extremist groups join the demonstrations.

A majority of trains around France were cancelled, including some international connections, according to the SNCF rail authority. About 20% of flights out of Paris’ Orly Airport were cancelled and airlines warned of delays.

The strike was also affecting some monuments. The Versailles Palace was closed on Thursday while the Eiffel Tower warned about potential disruptions and the Louvre Museum said some exhibition rooms will remain closed.

Many French workers expressed mixed feeling about the government's plan and pointed to the complexity of the pension system.

Quentin Coelho, 27, a Red Cross employee, said raising the retirement age “isn’t an efficient strategy. If we do it now, the government could decided to raise it further in 30 or 50 years from now. We can’t predict."

Coelho said he doesn’t trust the government and is already saving money for his pension.

French Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt acknowledged “concerns” prompted by the pension plans that will require from workers “an additional effort.” He called on strikers not to block the economy of the country.

“The right to strike is a freedom, but we do not want any blockades,” he said, speaking on LCI television," he said.

Protracted strikes met Macron’s last effort to raise the retirement age in 2019. He eventually withdrew it after the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

The French government is formally presenting the pension bill on Monday and it heads to Parliament next month. Its success will depend in part on the scale and duration of the strikes and protests.

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