France: More than a million marches against raising the retirement age

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 — but President Emmanuel Macron insisted he would press ahead with proposed pension reforms.

Emboldened by a mass display of resistance, French unions announced new strikes and protests on January 31, vowing to try to persuade the government to back off plans to raise the standard retirement age from 62 to 64. Macron says the measure – a mainstay of his second term – is needed to keep the pension system financially viable, but unions say it threatens hard-fought workers’ rights.

Out of the country to attend the Franco-Spanish summit in BarcelonaMacron acknowledged public discontent but said that “we must do this reform” in order to “save” French pensions.

“We will do so respectfully and in a spirit of dialogue, but also with firmness and responsibility,” he added.

As Macron spoke, riot police backed away from some protesters who had thrown projectiles on the sidelines of the largely peaceful Paris rally. Other minor incidents erupted briefly, prompting officers to use tear gas.

Paris police said 38 people were arrested as a crowd of people swarmed the streets of the capital despite a freezing rain, and the crowd was so large that it took hours to reach their destination. Pensioners and college students joined the motley crowd, united in their fear and anger at reform.

In a country the population is aging and life expectancy is increasing Where everyone receives a state pension, Macron’s government says reform is the only way to keep the system solvent.

Unions are proposing a tax on the wealthy or more of the salary contributions from employers to fund the pension system instead.

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Opinion polls show most French oppose reform, and Thursday was the first public reaction to Macron’s plan. The strikes severely disrupted transportation, schools and other public services, and more than 200 marches took place across France.

The Interior Ministry said more than 1.1 million people protested, including 80,000 in Paris. Unions said more than two million people took part nationwide and 400,000 took part in Paris.

Large crowds have also turned out to protest previous efforts to reform the pension system, particularly during Macron’s first term and under former President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. But none of these attracted more than a million people, according to government estimates.

Jean-Paul Cacchina, 56, a human resources worker, joined the march in the French capital – for the first time ever.

He said, “I’m not here for myself.” “I am here to defend the youth and the workers who perform difficult jobs. I work in the construction sector and I am a direct witness to the suffering of the employees.”

Many young people were among the Paris crowd, including high school students.

“I am afraid of what will happen next,” said Nathan Arsak, 19, a student and member of the UNEF union. “Losing our social achievements can happen so quickly. I am afraid of the future when I will be older and have to retire.”

Sylvie Pichard, a 59-year-old nurse, said she joined the rally because “as healthcare workers we are physically exhausted”.

“The only thing we have is to demonstrate and disrupt the country’s economy,” she added.

The economic cost of Thursday’s strikes was not immediately clear, but prolonged strikes could derail the economy as France grapples with inflation and tries to boost growth.

Police unions opposed to pension reform also took part in the protests, while those on duty sought to contain sporadic unrest.

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Most train services across France have been stopped, including some international connections, and about 20% of flights from Paris’ Orly Airport have been cancelled.

More than a third of teachers are on strike, the Education Ministry said, and the national electricity company, EDF, announced that electricity supply dropped dramatically Thursday amid the strikes.

The Palace of Versailles was closed Thursday while the Eiffel Tower warned of potential unrest and the Louvre closed some exhibition rooms.

Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the far-left CGT union, urged Macron to “listen to the street”.

Laurent Berger, president of the more moderate CFDT federation, called the reform “unfair” and said Thursday’s show of resistance was a warning sign.

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

Quentin Coelho, 27, a Red Cross employee, felt he had to work on Thursday despite understanding “most of the strikers’ demands”. Coelho said he fears the government will continue to raise the retirement age, so it is already saving money for his pension.

Others fear the reform will be hardest hit by lower-income workers, who live longer than the rich.

It’s a social issue. Do you want to retire sick, broken, and even dead? Or do you want to enjoy life? asked Fabian Felidoux, a 45-year-old railway worker,

France’s Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt acknowledged “concerns” raised by the pension plans, but said the government had rejected other options including raising taxes – which he said would hurt the economy and cost jobs – or reduce pensions.

The French government formally presents the pension bill on Monday and it will head to parliament next month. Their success will depend in part on the size and duration of strikes and protests.

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Most opposition parties, including the left and far right, are strongly against the plan. Macron’s centrist coalition lost its parliamentary majority last year, yet it still has the largest group in the National Assembly, where it hopes to ally with the conservative Republican Party to approve pension reforms.

Under the planned changes, workers must have worked for at least 43 years to be entitled to a full pension. For those who do not meet this requirement, such as many women who have cut off their careers to raise children or those who have studied for a long time and started working late, the retirement age will remain unchanged at 67.

Those who started working under the age of 20 and workers with major health problems will be allowed to retire early.

The long-running strikes met Macron’s latest efforts to raise the retirement age in 2019. and eventually pulled it after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Retirement rules vary widely from country to country, making direct comparisons difficult. The official retirement age in the United States is now 67, and countries across Europe are raising the retirement age as populations age and fertility rates decline.

But opponents of Macron’s reform point out that under the French system, people are already required to work more years overall than in some neighboring countries to get a full pension. Many also see the plan as jeopardizing the welfare state that is central to French society.

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Alexander Turnbull, Oleg Cetinik and Angela Charlton contributed to this report in Paris.

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