French unions announced new nationwide strikes and protests on January 31 against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age.
Eight leading unions met Thursday after their first day of mass protests against the plan, issuing statements pledging to press ahead with their measures to try to persuade the government to back down.
The government says the plan is needed to keep the pension system financially viable, but unions say it threatens hard-fought workers’ rights.
This is an urgent news update. The previous AP story follows below.
Paris (AP) –
Hundreds of thousands took to 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.
Nationwide strikes disrupted transportation, schools and other public services across France.
During a press conference at the Franco-Spanish summit in Barcelona, Spain, Macron said that “we must do this reform” in order to “save” the pension system.
“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 around 30 people had been arrested.
French workers will have to work longer before receiving a pension under the new rules – with the nominal retirement age rising from 62 to 64. Macron’s government says reform is the only way to keep the system afloat in a country with an increasingly aging population, a growing life expectancy and everyone receiving a pension.
Unions argue that pension reform threatens hard-won rights, and propose a tax on the wealthy or more salary contributions from employers to fund the pension system. Opinion polls indicate that most French people also oppose reform.
More than 200 rallies were held across France on Thursday, including a large rally in Paris in which all major unions in France participated.
The CGT union said more than 400,000 people demonstrated in Paris. The authorities have not provided numbers yet.
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, chanting, “Young people are demonstrating. Macron, I’m done.” High school student unions urged members to join the protests.
“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 the strikes was not immediately clear. The government fears a major show of resistance on Thursday could embolden unions to pursue prolonged strikes that could cripple the economy as France grapples with inflation and tries to boost growth.
Police unions opposed to pension reform have also taken part in the protests, while those on duty have braced for potential violence if extremist groups join the demonstrations.
Most train services across France have been cancelled, including some international flights, according to the SNCF rail authority. About 20% of flights from Paris’ Orly airport have been canceled and airlines have warned of delays.
The Ministry of National Education said that between 34% and 42% of teachers went on strike, depending on the schools.
The national electricity company, EDF, announced a significant cut in power supplies Thursday amid the strikes.
Thierry Dessasis, a retired teacher, called the government’s plan an “an aberration”.
“Health problems start at 64. I’m 68 and healthy, but I’m starting to see doctors more often.”
The strike also affected some monuments. The Palace of Versailles was closed on Thursday, while the Eiffel Tower warned of possible unrest and the Louvre museum said some exhibition rooms would remain closed.
Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the CGT union, urged Macron to “listen to the street”.
CFDT union president Laurent Berger called the reform “unfair” and said “there will be more working days”.
Many French workers feel mixed about the government’s plan and point 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”. With the country’s aging population, he said, raising the retirement age “is not an effective strategy. If we do it now, the government may decide to raise it further in 30 or 50 years from now. We can’t predict.”
Coelho said he does not trust the government and is already saving money for his pension.
French Labor Minister Olivier Dusupet acknowledged there were “concerns” raised by pension plans that would require workers to make an “extra effort”.
Speaking on LCI TV, Dussopt justified the option of delaying the retirement age because the government rejected other options including raising taxes – which he said would hurt the economy and cost jobs – or cut 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.
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 most important group in the National Assembly, where it stands a good chance of allying 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 work early, under the age of 20, and workers with significant 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.
Alexander Turnbull contributed to this report.