PARIS (AP) — At least 1.1 million people protested in the streets of Paris and other French cities Thursday amid nationwide strikes against plans to raise the retirement age, but President Emmanuel Macron insisted he would press ahead with the proposed pension reforms.
Emboldened by the high voter turnout, French unions announced new strikes and protests on January 31, vowing to try to force the government to abandon plans to raise the standard retirement age from 62 to 64. Macron says the measure is needed to keep the pension system financially viable, but unions say it threatens workers’ hard-fought rights.
During a press conference at the Franco-Spanish summit in Barcelona, Spain, Macron said “we have to do this reform” to “save” the pension system.
“We will do it respectfully, in a spirit of dialogue, but also of determination and responsibility,” he added.
As Macron spoke, riot police pushed back some protesters throwing projectiles on the sidelines of the largely peaceful march in Paris. Some other minor incidents briefly erupted, prompting officers to use tear gas.
Paris police said 38 people were detained.
In a country with an aging population and rising life expectancy, where everyone receives a state pension, Macron’s government says reform is the only way to keep the system solvent.
Unions are proposing instead a tax on the rich or more employer contributions to fund the pension system. Polls show that most French people are also against the reform.
Strikes in France have severely disrupted transport, schools and other public services in France.
More than 200 rallies were organized in France on Thursday, including a large one in Paris involving all the major unions in France.
The interior ministry said more than 1.1 million people protested in France, including 80,000 in Paris. Unions said more than 2 million people took part across the country and 400,000 in Paris.
Large crowds also gathered for protests against previous pension reform efforts during Macron’s first term and under former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. But neither drew more than 1 million people, according to government estimates.
Jean-Paul Cachina, 56, a human resources worker, joined the march in the French capital – a first for him.
“I’m not here for myself,” he said. “I’m here to protect the youth and the workers who do the hard work. I work in the construction industry and have witnessed first-hand the suffering of employees.”
Among the crowd in Paris were many young people who chanted “Youth protest. Macron, you are done. High school student unions called on members to join the protests.
Nathan Arsak, 19, a student and member of the UNEF union, said: “I’m scared of what will happen next. The loss of our social accomplishments can happen so quickly. I fear the future when I get old and have to retire.
Sylvie Bechard, a 59-year-old nurse, said she joined the march because “we health workers are physically exhausted.”
“All we have is to demonstrate and block the country’s economy,” she added.
The economic cost of the strikes was not immediately clear. The government worries that a major show of resistance on Thursday could encourage unions to press ahead with prolonged walkouts that could derail the economy, just as France battles inflation and tries to boost growth.
Police unions opposed to pension reform also took part in the protests, while officers on duty braced for potential violence if extremist groups joined the demonstrations.
Most train services around France were cancelled, including some international connections, according to rail authority SNCF. About 20% of flights from Paris’ Orly airport were canceled and airlines warned of delays.
The Ministry of National Education said between 34% and 42% of teachers were on strike, depending on the schools.
National electricity company EDF announced that electricity supplies were significantly reduced on Thursday amid strikes.
Thierry Desassis, a retired teacher, called the government’s plan “an aberration”.
“At 64, you start having health problems. I am 68 years old and in good health, but I have started going to doctors more often,” he said.
The strike also affected some monuments. The Palace of Versailles was closed on Thursday, while the Eiffel Tower warned of potential disruption and the Louvre museum said some exhibition halls would remain closed.
Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the hard-left CGT union, called on Macron to “listen to the street”.
Laurent Berger, head of the more moderate CFDT union, called the reform “unfair”.
Many French workers expressed mixed feelings about the government’s plan and pointed to the complexity of the pension system.
Quentin Coelho, 27, a Red Cross worker, felt he had to work on Thursday, even though he understood “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 in another 30 or 50 years. We cannot predict.”
Coelho said he doesn’t trust the government and is already saving money for his pension.
French Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt acknowledged the “concern” raised by the pension plans, but said the government had ruled out other options including raising taxes – which he said would hurt the economy and cost jobs – or cut pensions.
The French government formally presented the pension bill on Monday and it will head to parliament next month. Its success will depend in part on the scale and duration of strikes and protests.
Most opposition parties, including the left and far-right, are strongly against the plan. Macron’s centrist alliance lost its parliamentary majority last year, but still has the most important group in the National Assembly, where it stands a good chance of being able to ally with the conservative Republican Party to approve pension reforms.
Under the planned changes, workers must have worked for at least 43 years to be eligible for a full pension. For those who do not meet this condition, such as many women who have interrupted their careers to raise children or those who 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 serious health problems will be eligible for early retirement.
Prolonged strikes have met Macron’s latest attempt to raise the retirement age in 2019. He eventually withdrew 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 US is now 67, and countries across Europe are raising retirement ages as populations age and birth rates decline.
But opponents of Macron’s reform point out that under the French system, people already have to work more years overall than in some neighboring countries to get a full pension.
Many also believe the plan threatens the welfare state that is central to French society.
Alexander Turnbull contributed to this report.
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