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France braces for ‘painful Thursday’ as pension strikes start
Strikes

France braces for ‘painful Thursday’ as pension strikes start

3 min. 19.01.2023
Workers in sectors including railways, schools, hospitals and air-traffic controllers are taking part in the 24-hour strike
TGV trains 'InOui' at a standstill on platforms at the Montparnasse station in Paris, January 19, 2023.
TGV trains 'InOui' at a standstill on platforms at the Montparnasse station in Paris, January 19, 2023.
Photo credit: AFP

Strikes coordinated by French unions aim to bring much of the country to a standstill on Thursday in a protest against government plans to revamp the pension system and a test of president Emmanuel Macron’s ability to resist street pressure.

Workers in sectors including railways, schools, hospitals and air-traffic controllers are taking part in the 24-hour strike against Macron’s plan to raise France’s minimum retirement age to 64 from 62. Unions will lead marches across France’s largest cities with the backing of left-wing political parties. 

In a rare show of unity, France’s eight largest labor unions have coordinated efforts and the expected disruptions have prompted the government to urge people to work from home. Still, the success of the strikes is set to be at least partly measured by the scope of the street demonstrations.

A board displaying the closure of the Montparnasse metro station in Paris.
A board displaying the closure of the Montparnasse metro station in Paris.
AFP

Both the CGT union and the head of the Communist party have set a goal of having at least 1 million people protest across France for what is likely to be just one of a series of actions.

“This will be a first day,” CGT head Philippe Martinez said on France 2 television on Wednesday. “When we say this, it means there will be others.”

Macron’s decision to forge ahead with his reform comes at a difficult juncture for the French economy as it wrestles with power prices that soared last year and as inflation weighs on households and businesses. 

In an effort to build consensus, Macron has set the proposed minimum retirement age at 64, down from an initial plan to put it at 65, and government ministers have said that they are open to tweaks to the plan during parliamentary debates.

Some of Thursday’s largest disruptions are expected in transportation. Most high speed trains have been canceled and even an smaller fraction of regional trains will be in service. 

In Paris, public transport operator RATP warned that three metro lines will be out of service and most of the other ones will run at less than half of regular levels. Airlines were ordered by the government body in charge of civil aviation to cut 20% of flights at Orly airport. 

A warning tape displayed to close off access to Montparnasse metro station in Paris.
A warning tape displayed to close off access to Montparnasse metro station in Paris.
AFP

Fuel deliveries from French refineries, including those owned by TotalEnergies SE and Exxon Mobil Corp., will also be affected by the 24-hour strike. And as many as 70% of nursery and primary school teachers will stay home, closing many schools, according to unions in the education sector. 

“It will be a painful Thursday” Transport Minister Clement Beaune warned in an interview on France 2. 

Macron’s government unveiled its pension reform plan last week and will submit it to parliament in early February. Debate there is set to last into March.

Although Macron lost his outright majority in June’s parliamentary election, the conservative Republicains party has said it could back the pension bill under certain conditions, giving him a large enough majority in the lower house. Failing that, Macron could still use an article in the constitution that allows bills to pass without a vote.  

Making the French work longer is essential to boost relatively low employment rates among seniors and avoid persistent deficits in a system funded by worker contributions, the government has said. 

RATP staff wearing jackets reading "here to help you" work at Chatelet-Les Halles metro station in Paris.
RATP staff wearing jackets reading "here to help you" work at Chatelet-Les Halles metro station in Paris.
AFP

But labor organizations argue that changing the minimum retirement age will unfairly hit the low-skilled and the least wealthy who began working earlier in life. 

Unions say there are better ways to boost employment among older workers and re-balance the system, including tax increases — which Macron has ruled out. Nearly three-fifths of French people oppose plans to overhaul the pension system, a survey by pollster Elabe showed last week.

Macron withdrew a different proposal for pension reform in 2020 following lengthy strikes mainly in transport. At the time, he cited the Covid pandemic as the reason. 

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.


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