French transport and schools hit by strikes against pension reform


France’s transport network and schools were disrupted by nationwide strikes on Thursday as labour unions demonstrated their opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

In Paris, metro and commuter trains were running sharply reduced services, while about 20 per cent of flights had been cancelled at Orly airport. The SNCF national rail service was running one-third of trains on its high-speed lines, while some Eurostar trains to and from London were cancelled and ferry links out of Calais were affected by strikes at the port.

Some 70 per cent of primary schoolteachers had given notice of their intention to strike, which would cause the closure of one-third of primary schools in Paris alone, according to the Snuipp-FSU union.

The disruption is likely to continue in the coming weeks as the government seeks to push a draft law on pension reform through parliament by the end of March. Union leaders said they wanted to reach the symbolic bar of a million protesters taking part in 215 demonstrations from Lille in the north to Cannes on the Mediterranean coast. They are expected to announce on Thursday night whether the strikes will be extended.

“It’s a first day, there will be others,” Philippe Martinez, the leader of the hard-left CGT union, told Public Sénat television.

The battle is shaping up to be a test of Macron’s reformist credentials and an important moment of his second term. He has argued that the state pension system, which relies on current workers funding retirees’ benefits, needs to change to ensure its viability as the population ages. In keeping with his pro-business economic stance, he has ruled out other approaches, such as raising taxes or cutting pensions.

At this stage, parliament looks likely to pass the bill since the conservative Les Républicains have indicated their willingness to vote with Macron’s centrist alliance, so the showdown may play out in the streets instead.

Facing down protests while trying to change the pension rules has become a rite of passage for recent French presidents. Since the Socialist François Mitterrand lowered the retirement age from 65 to 60 in the early 1980s, successive leaders have faced resistance when trying to change a system that many French see as an untouchable right.

An Ipsos poll published on Wednesday found that 61 per cent of respondents opposed Macron’s proposed reform with reasons cited that it was unnecessary, poorly designed or ill-timed. But 81 per cent acknowledged in a separate question that the system needed to change.

“Public support for protest movements against pensions has historically been strong, and it usually holds up despite the disruptions to daily life, unless there is violence,” said Jérôme Fourquet, a pollster and author at the Ifop polling agency.

Macron tried to overhaul pensions in 2019 when he presented a more ambitious idea of moving to a single points-based system for all workers instead of having multiple schemes. He faced two months of crippling transport strikes before abandoning the idea when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

This time the government has opted for a simpler set of tweaks that translate into the French having to work two years longer. The proposal would change the retirement age and the other parameter that determines pension sizes, namely the overall time people have to pay into the system to qualify for a full pension.

Under the new plan, people will have to be 64 before being able to retire (except for some who began to work at a young age) and will require 43 years of contributions, instead of around 41 now.

Opponents of the changes, including the leftwing political alliance Nupes and the far-right Rassemblement National, argue that they are unjust since blue-collar workers will be harder hit since they often enter the workforce earlier.





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