Trade unions are calling for more strikes over Macron’s pension reform

  • 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) – More than a million people marched through French cities on Thursday to denounce President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age, as a nationwide wave of strikes halted trains, shut down refineries and disrupted electricity generation.

Buoyed by its success, the country’s major trade unions called a second day of strikes on Jan. 31 in an effort to force Macron and his government to back out of a pension reform plan that would see most people work an extra two years to their age. 64.

“Now the government finds itself with its back to the wall,” the unions said in a joint statement. “Everyone knows that raising the retirement age only benefits employers and the wealthy.”

The protests represent a major test for Macron, who said on Thursday his pension reform was “fair and responsible”, and a necessity to help keep government finances on a sound footing. Opinion polls show that most French people oppose this measure.

About 1.1 million protesters have taken to the streets in dozens of protests across France, the interior ministry said, more than the first wave of street protests when Macron first tried to pass reform in 2019. He halted that attempt when the COVID pandemic hit.

Police fired tear gas during intermittent skirmishes with masked youths on the sidelines of the Paris rally. Dozens of arrests were made.

A large banner carried by workers in Tours, western France, reads, “It is the salaries and pensions that must be increased, not the retirement age.”

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.”

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 fund pensions, such as taxing the super-rich or increasing employer contributions or contributions from 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.

social discontent

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 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.

“Let’s continue the debate and the persuasion,” Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne wrote on Twitter.

Train drivers, teachers and refinery workers were among those who left their jobs, as well as half the workforce at state-run nuclear power producer EDF.

Rail operator SNCF said high-speed intercity and local commuter train services in Paris were severely disrupted.

flaw

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.

Some union members have spoken of rekindling the spirit of 1995, when Jacques Chirac’s government ordered tourist boats on the Seine to ferry passengers to work and backtracked on pension reform after weeks of transport strikes.

But the ability of unions to shut down parts of the eurozone’s second-biggest economy and force governments to turn around has never been the same.

The 2007 ban on random strikes and the requirement for strikers to guarantee minimum public services limited the ability of unions to dampen the reformist ambitions of governments. Working from home and other changes in work practices may also dampen their impact.

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

Data from EDF and grid operator RTE showed electricity production falling by around 10% of total energy supply, prompting France to increase imports.

Shipments were blocked at Total Energy (TTEF.PA) refineries in France, union and company officials said, but the company said a single strike would not disrupt the refinery’s operations.

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 Stéphane Mahe in Saint-Nazaire, Marine Strauss in Brussels; Written by Ingrid Melander and Richard Love; Editing by Nick McPhee and Andrea Ricci

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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