Strike action over Macron’s pensions plan brings major disruption to France

Over 1.27 million workers across transport, school and energy sectors rally against government plan to raise retirement age to 64

More than 1.27 million people have taken part in street demonstrations across France in a second round of coordinated strike action against Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular plan to raise the retirement age to 64.

Transport, schools and the energy sector were hit by strike action on Tuesday. Local buses, trains and trams in cities from Paris to Nice, as well as regional and high-speed trains across the country, were “very significantly disrupted”, according to rail operators.

Air France said one in 10 short- and medium-haul services would be cancelled. About half of all nursery and primary school teachers went on strike, according to the main teachers’ union.

Some town halls run by the left closed fully or partially in solidarity with the protests, including Paris city hall, sparking anger from ministers. At the Paris protest, the socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, accused the government of “shamefaced lies” for arguing that pension change was necessary.

Pension protesters throng the Place d’Italie in Paris on Tuesday.
Pension protesters throng the Place d’Italie in Paris on Tuesday. Photograph: Benoît Tessier/Reuters

On 19 January, more than 1.1 million people marched in the biggest demonstrations over pension changes in over a decade, the largest gathering since the rightwing president Nicolas Sarkozy raised the retirement age from 60 to 62 in 2010.

“The government has lost the ideological battle,” said Philippe Martinez of the leftwing CGT union at the Paris march. He said turnout in small towns and villages across France showed that “politicians should listen to the people”.

Laurent Berger, the head of France’s largest union, the moderate CFDT, said the government could not ignore the protests.

Polls show that a majority of French people disapprove of Macron’s plan to raise the pension age from 62 to 64, with most people supporting the protests. All major trade unions joined in a rare show of unity, and the large street demonstrations are the first big test of the centrist president’s second term in office.

Macron has repeatedly told French people they “need to work more” and he has made the pensions issue a marker of his aim to transform France and overhaul its social model and welfare system. In recent days, the government has hardened its tone to insist the changes will happen: raising the retirement age for most people and increasing the years of contributions required for a full pension.

The president said on Monday night that the changes were “essential when we compare ourselves to the rest of Europe” and that changes had to be made to “save” the French state pensions system. The French retirement age of 62 is the lowest of any major European economy.

The government has argued that changes are crucial to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years. But political opponents and trade unions argue that the system is currently balanced, noting that the head of the independent pensions advisory council told parliament recently that “pension spending is not out of control, it’s relatively contained”.

Protesters in Strasbourg, eastern France, hold a banner reading ‘Pensions: not one day more, not one euro less’ during a national strike on Tuesday.
Protesters in Strasbourg, eastern France, hold a banner reading ‘Pensions: not one day more, not one euro less’ during a national strike on Tuesday. Photograph: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

The prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, has said that raising the pension age to 64 is “not negotiable”. But Borne is under pressure to modify the proposals, particularly for mothers who interrupted their careers to look after children and who could find themselves at a disadvantage compared with men.

Many of the street demonstrations across France included women of all ages protesting against inequalities in the pensions system. Clémence Guetté, of the radical left’s La France Insoumise party, said a gender gap in salaries and in pensions was “unacceptable”.

The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, has used the row to attack the left, saying this weekend that parties on the left were “only looking to screw up the country” and were defending “idleness and champagne socialism”.

The pension changes still need to go through parliament, where Macron’s centrist grouping has lost its absolute majority. The leftwing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft legislation in an attempt to slow its path through parliament. The government had hoped to pass the bill swiftly with the support of some lawmakers from the rightwing Les Républicains, but the prime minister still faces the challenge of lining up support in and outside Macron’s centrist grouping.

An Odoxa poll for Public Senat TV and regional newspapers on Tuesday found that the popularity of Macron and Borne had dropped by five points in one month.


Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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