French workers are striking nationwide, saying “not” to reform Macron’s pension system

  • Police fire tear gas on the outskirts of a Paris protest
  • 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

PARIS (Reuters) – French workers went on strike and marched across the country on Thursday, stopping trains and shutting down electricity production in protest against government plans to raise the retirement age by two years to 64.

The strike is a major test for President Emmanuel Macron, who said on Thursday his pension reform plan, which opinion polls show is deeply unpopular, was “fair and responsible” and must be implemented.

The protesters disagreed.

“It is the salaries and pensions that must be increased, not the retirement age,” read a large banner carried by workers that opened the protest march in Tours in western France.

Isabel, 53, a social worker, said her job was too difficult to add another two years: “I’ll have to set up my walking frame if it gets fixed.”

Hundreds of thousands took part in rallies across the country, according to police estimates compiled by Le Monde newspaper. In Nice, in the south of France, a large banner read: “No to reform.”

Police fired tear gas on the fringes of a Paris protest when masked individuals dressed in black threw projectiles at their lines. BFM TV, citing police, said about 20 people had been arrested.

The government says pension reform is vital to ensuring the system does not go 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.

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.

“This problem can be solved in a different way, through taxes. Workers should not have to pay the public sector deficit,” said Laurent Berger, leader of CFDT, France’s largest trade union.

More hits?

The challenge for the unions 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.

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.

The company said train drivers, teachers and refinery workers were among those who left their jobs, as well as nearly 45% of employees at electricity giant EDF. Radio France Inter played music instead of its usual programmes, and bus drivers and civil servants also went off work.

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.

Traffic is off

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 go on strike even if she didn’t participate.

But not everyone understood that.

“It’s always the same (people) on strike…and we have to put up with that,” 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.

The strike halted ferry crossings between Dover and Calais, a key sea route for trade between Britain and the continent.

Seven out of 10 primary teachers have stopped working, their unions said, and almost as many in secondary schools, 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 around 10% of total energy supply, prompting France to increase imports.

Shipments blocked at TotalEnergies’ (TTEF.PA) Refineries in France, union and company officials said, but the company said a single strike would not disrupt refinery operations.

The impact on air traffic was largely limited to a reduction of around 20% of flights at Orly, Paris’s second largest airport.

Additional reporting by Dominique Vidalon, Micaela Cabrera, Yiming Wu, Anthony Paun, Tassilo Hamel, Forrest Crelin, Juliette Jabekero, Geert de Klerk and Blandine Henault in Paris, Ingrid Melander in Tours, Eric Gaillard in Cannes and St├ęphane Mahe in Saint-Nazaire, Marine Strauss in Brussels; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Nick McPhee

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