Over a million join street protest in France against Macron pension reforms

Strikes disrupted train services, flights, schools and businesses in France on Thursday as more than one million people protested against the government’s plans to raise the retirement age for most workers.

Protests in major French cities – including Paris, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes and Nice – brought many transport services to a standstill. The Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors as union leaders, expected to announce more strikes and protests in the evening, said Thursday was just the beginning.

Eight of the biggest unions took part in the industrial action against pension reforms unveiled by President Emmanuel Macron’s government. The unions have called for another day of action on January 31 against legislation that will require French citizens to work until 64, from 62 currently, to qualify for a full state pension.

France’s Interior Ministry said a total of 1.12 million people took to the streets across the country, including 80,000 in Paris, where small groups of demonstrators threw bottles, rocks and fireworks at riot police.

The turnout was quite a large number, even by French standards, and more than the turnout at a first rally against a previous pension reform in 2019.

The leader of the hardline CGT union, Philippe Martinez, said more than 2 million took part. It is common in France that police and union estimates vary widely. Either way, the turnout is a success for the unions, political analysts say.

“It is salaries and pensions that must be increased, not the retirement age,” read one large banner carried by workers that opened the protest march in Tours, in western France.

Police briefly fired tear gas on the fringes of the Paris protest when black-clad, masked individuals in hoodies hurled projectiles at their lines. About 30 people were arrested, police said.

The government says the pension reform is vital to ensure the system does not go bust. Pushing back the retirement age by two years and extending the pay-in period would bring an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.1 billion) in annual pension contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027, according to Labour Ministry estimates.

Unions argue there are other ways to ensure the viability of the pension system such as taxing the super-rich or increasing employers’ contributions or those of well-off pensioners.

In Nice, in southern France, and elsewhere, banners read: “No to the reform”. “This problem can be solved in a different way, through taxation. Workers should not have to pay for the public sector deficit,” said Laurent Berger, the leader of CFDT, France’s biggest labour union.

The pension reform still needs to go through parliament, where Macron has lost his absolute majority but is hoping to get it passed with the support of conservatives.

Train drivers, teachers and refinery workers were among those who walked off their jobs, as well as nearly 45 percent of staff at utility giant EDF, the company said. France Inter radio played music instead of its usual programming and bus drivers and civil servants also stopped work.

Only between one-in-three and one-in-five high-speed TGV lines were operating, with barely any local or regional trains running, the SNCF rail operator said.

In Paris, some metro stations were closed and traffic was seriously disrupted, with few trains running.

In the busy Gare du Nord station, people rushed to catch the few trains still operating while employees in yellow vests were assisting frazzled commuters.

Restaurant worker Beverly Gahinet, who missed work because her train was cancelled, said she agreed with the strike even if she was not taking part. But not all were so understanding.

“It’s always the same (people) who are on strike … and we have to endure it,” said real estate worker Virginie Pinto, as she struggled to find a metro to go to work.

A 2007 ban on wildcat walkouts and restrictions on strikes to guarantee minimum public services have limited unions’ ability to wear down governments’ reform ambitions.

The fact that working from home is much more common now since the pandemic could also have an impact.

Some seven out of 10 primary school teachers stopped work, and nearly as many in high schools, their unions said, though the Education Ministry gave much lower figures. In Paris, students blockaded at least one high school in support of the strike action.

EDF and grid operator RTE data showed electricity production was down by roughly 10 percent of total power supply, prompting France to raise imports.

Shipments were blocked at TotalEnergies’ refineries in France, union and company officials said, but the company said one strike day would not disrupt refinery operations.

The impact on air traffic was largely limited to a reduction of about 20 percent of flights in Orly, Paris’ second-biggest airport.

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