Jan 31, 2023
France Hit by New Strikes as Opposition to Pension Reform Grows
(Bloomberg) -- French labor unions rallied more people to a second day of protests against government plans to raise the retirement age and announced two more days of action, turning up the pressure on President Emmanuel Macron to rethink his signature economic reform.
The interior ministry counted 1.27 million people at marches across the country on Tuesday, an increase from around 1.1 million on the first day of protest Jan. 19.
Subway and commuter trains serving the capital were severely disrupted, with limited service on most lines, and many schools were also closed. Protesters also blocked three oil refineries operated by TotalEnergies SE and strikes by Electricite de France SA’s workforce took more than 3 gigawatts of nuclear-reactor capacity offline.
Macron has pledged to see his program through, which includes increasing the minimum retirement age to 64 from 62. Backing down would endanger a fundamental part of his strategy to steady France’s deficit-ridden finances and improve the economy’s capacity to grow and create jobs.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said in a tweet late Tuesday that the government had heard “the questions and the doubts” the pension plan had prompted and said parliamentary debate set to start next week would “enrich the project.”
In a continued show of unity, France’s main unions called for another day of strikes Feb. 7 and a day of protests Saturday Feb. 11. According to their count, more 2.5 million people joined Tuesday’s marches or strikes.
“Faced with such a massive rejection, the government must withdraw its reform,” Patricia Drevon, an official from the Force Ouvriere union said at a press conference in Paris.
Read more: Strike-Hit Britain Is Starting to Look More Like France
There was at least one area in which the momentum behind the backlash may be waning, however, as fewer public sector workers went on strike Tuesday compared to Jan. 19.
CGT union head Philippe Martinez said that was expected as many chose not to strike this time in order to preserve their wages, while a bigger turnout of white collar, private sector workers made up the numbers.
“The president and the government must hear the discontent,” Martinez said.
“It is true that the French are relatively well-off compared to other countries but still we need to protect our system,” said Jean-Philippe, a 47 year-old mechanical engineer who declined to give his family name. “The reasons given by the government are completely fake.”
Opponents of raising the minimum retirement age point to 1995, when then President Jacques Chirac abandoned plans to change the pension system after prolonged disruption. More recently, governments have stood their ground, notably in 2010 when Nicolas Sarkozy raised the lower limit to 62 despite months of unrest.
Macron says reform is essential to avoid deficits in the coming years, especially as public finances are already under pressure from massive spending during the Covid pandemic and energy crisis. The International Monetary Fund said on Monday that the reform could help increase labor supply — another key objective of his government, given relatively low employment rates among older workers.
The National Assembly is due to start debating Macron’s bill next week after the social affairs commission completes a review of more than 7,000 amendments. While the government says minor modifications are possible, Borne insisted on Sunday that the increase of age thresholds is “no longer negotiable.”
Macron’s task is made harder after he lost an absolute majority in elections last year. His government has tried to secure the support of the conservative Republicains, who have traditionally backed increasing the retirement age, but some have expressed doubts since the first day of protests.
The government could ultimately use special constitutional provisions to bypass a vote in parliament, but in doing so would expose itself to a possible no-confidence vote and risk further stoking the anger of protesters.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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