PARIS (AP) — At least 1.1 million people protested on 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 go ahead. with the proposed pension reforms.
Emboldened by the massive show of resistance, French unions announced new strikes and protests on January 1. 31, vowing to try to get the government to backtrack on plans to increase the standard retirement age from 62 to 64 years. Macron says the move, a central pillar of his second term, is necessary to keep the pension system financially viable, but unions say it threatens workers’ rights they fought so hard for.
Out of the country for a Franco-Spanish Summit in BarcelonaMacron acknowledged the public discontent but said that “we must do this reform” to “save” French pensions.
“We will do it with respect, in a spirit of dialogue but also with determination and responsibility,” he added.
As Macron spoke, riot police pushed back some projectile-throwing protesters on the sidelines of the largely peaceful Paris march. A few other minor incidents broke out briefly, prompting officers to use tear gas.
Paris police said 38 people were detained as crowds filled the capital’s streets despite freezing rain, the crowds so large it took hours to reach their destination. Retirees and college students joined the diverse crowd, united by fear and anger for reform.
In a country with a Aging population and increase in life expectancy Where everyone receives a state pension, the Macron government says reform is the only way to keep the system solvent.
The unions are proposing a tax on the rich or more payroll contributions from employers to finance the pension system.
Polls suggest that most French people are opposed to the reform, and Thursday was the first public reaction to Macron’s plan. The strikes severely disrupted transportation, schools, and other public services, and more than 200 rallies were organized across France.
The Interior Ministry said more than 1.1 million people protested, including 80,000 in Paris. Unions said more than 2 million people participated across the country and 400,000 in Paris.
Large crowds also turned out for protests against previous retirement reform efforts, notably during Macron’s first term and under former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. But none of them 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 by myself,” he said. “I’m here to stand up for youth and workers doing demanding jobs. I work in the construction industry sector and witness first-hand the suffering of employees.”
Many young people were among the crowd in Paris, including high school students.
Nathan Arsac, 19, a student and member of the UNEF union, said: “I am afraid of what will happen next. Losing our social gains could happen so fast. I am afraid of the future when I am older and have to retire.”
Sylvie Béchard, a 59-year-old nurse, said she joined the march because “health workers are physically exhausted.”
“The only thing we have is to demonstrate and block the country’s economy,” he added.
The economic cost of Thursday’s strikes was not immediately clear, but the prolonged strikes could hamper the economy just as France battles inflation and tries to boost growth.
Police unions opposed to the pension reform also participated in the protests, while those on duty sought to contain the scattered riots.
Most train services in France have been halted, including some international connections, and around 20% of flights from Paris’ Orly airport have been cancelled.
The Education Ministry said more than a third of teachers were on strike, and the national power company EDF announced that power supplies were cut substantially on Thursday amid the strikes.
The Palace of Versailles was closed on Thursday, while the Eiffel Tower warned of possible disruptions and the Louvre Museum closed some exhibition rooms.
Philippe Martínez, general secretary of the far-left CGT union, urged Macron to “listen to the street.”
Laurent Berger, head of the more moderate CFDT union, called the reform “unfair” and said Thursday’s show of resistance was a warning sign.
Many French workers expressed mixed feelings about the government’s plan, noting the complexity of the pension system.
Quentin Coelho, 27, a Red Cross employee, felt he had to work on Thursday despite understanding “most of the strikers’ demands.” Coelho said he fears the government will continue to raise the retirement age, so he is already saving money for his pension.
Others worry that the reform will hit low-income workers the hardest, who live less than the rich.
“It is a social issue. Do you want to retire sick, broken and even dead? Or do you want to enjoy life? asked Fabien Villedieu, a 45-year-old railway worker,
French Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt acknowledged “concerns” raised by the pension plans but said the government had rejected other options that involve raising taxes, which he said would hurt the economy and cost jobs, or cut pensions.
The French government will formally present the pension bill on Monday and it will go to Parliament next month. Its success will depend in part on the scale and duration of the strikes and protests.
Most opposition parties, including those on the left and far right, strongly oppose the plan. Macron’s centrist alliance lost its parliamentary majority last year but still has the largest group in the National Assembly, where he hopes to ally with the conservative Republican party to pass pension reforms.
Under the planned changes, workers must have worked for at least 43 years to be entitled to a full pension. For those who do not meet that condition, such as many women who interrupted their careers to raise children or who studied for a long time and started working late, the retirement age would remain unchanged at 67.
Those who started working before the age of 20 and workers with significant health problems could take early retirement.
Protracted strikes fulfilled Macron’s latest effort to raise the retirement age in 2019. He finally withdrew it after the COVID-19 pandemic.
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 have raised the retirement age as the population ages and fertility rates fall.
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 receive a full pension. Many also believe that the plan jeopardizes the welfare state that is fundamental to French society.
Alexander Turnbull, Oleg Cetinic and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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