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French transport and schools hit by strikes against pension reform

Nationwide strikes disrupted France’s transport network and schools 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 hit by 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 most high-speed lines, while some Eurostar trains to and from London were cancelled. Ferry links out of Calais were affected by strikes, with P&O scrapping all crossings until 5pm.

Stephane Rouart, a 49-year-old sanitation worker protesting in Paris, said it was not the right time to raise the retirement age. “You’ve got inflation rising, people feel [under pressure] because of energy prices, and on top of that you’re raising the retirement age — it’s an explosive combination,” he added.

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. After holding 215 demonstrations nationwide, union leaders were expected to announce in the evening whether strikes will be extended.

The education ministry said 39 per cent of teachers nationally were on strike. Government officials and economists were paying particular attention to whether employees at power plants and petrol refineries maintain industrial action since their absences can shut down whole swaths of the economy.

“It’s a first day, there will be others,” Philippe Martinez, 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 during 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.

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. Turnout for the first day of demonstrations was strong. The interior ministry estimated the crowds at 1.1mn while the CGT claimed an attendance of 2mn.

Facing down protests while trying to change the pension rules has become a rite of passage for 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 citizens 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 change.

“Public support for protest movements against pension reforms 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.

By Thursday afternoon, thousands of protesters had gathered at Place de la République in Paris for the union-led march. Among them was 31-year-old health worker Suna Da Fonseca. “If we lift the retirement age to 64 today, what guarantees do we have that it’s not going to be lifted even higher in a few years?” she said.

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 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 simpler tweaks that translate into most French having to work two years longer. They would change the retirement age and the other metric that determines pension amounts, 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 before the age of 20, and will require 43 years of contributions to get a full pension, 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 who enter the workforce early will be harder hit.

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