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France prepares for 'hellish' day of protests over controversial pension reform

The changes would raise the retirement age for most people from 62 to 64 and increase the years of contributions required for a full pension.

A DAY OF strikes and protests kicked off in France today, set to disrupt transport and schooling across the country in a trial for the government as workers oppose a deeply unpopular pensions overhaul.

The changes presented by President Emmanuel Macron’s government last week would raise the retirement age for most people to 64 from 62 and increase the years of contributions required for a full pension.

France’s trade unions immediately called for a mass mobilisation, which is to be the first time they have united since 12 years ago, when the retirement age was hiked to 62 from 60.

The strikes are expected to bring much of the capital’s public transport to a standstill and halt a large proportion of trains throughout France.

Many parents will have to look after their children as 70 percent of primary school teachers are expected to strike and many schools will close entirely for the day, according to the main teachers’ union.

Earlier today, strikers at state-owned energy provider EDF said they had lowered electricity output by 7,000 megawatts, while grid operator RTE put the figure at 5,000 MW – enough to power two cities the size of Paris.

The reduction would have “no impact on users”, the CGT union federation for the sector said.

One of the capital’s metro lines was closed completely, with another 12 “very disrupted”, Paris transport operator RATP told AFP.

And public radio stations Franceinfo and France Inter were filling the airwaves with music rather than their usual rolling news updates, while TV channel France 2 showed re-runs.

Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-left CGT union, told broadcaster Public Senat the planned pension reform “bundles together everyone’s dissatisfaction” with the government, and that the rare united front among worker representatives showed “the problem is very serious”.

“This will be a big day of mobilisation, especially with all the unions on the same page,” Martinez said.

“We all agree that the reform is unjust,” he added, calling it “dogmatic and ideological”.

The unions are hoping for over a million demonstrators in more than 200 cities across France.

French media have reported that police are making plans for 550,000 to 750,000 protesters, including 50,000 to 80,000 in Paris.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said yesterday that 10,000 police would be on alert, more than a third of them in the capital, including to look out for some 1,000 demonstrators who could be “violent”.

Transport Minister Clement Beaune has warned it will be “a hellish Thursday”, urging all those who can to work from home.

With Paris metros and buses in disarray, basketball fans could encounter trouble as they try to reach the sold-out NBA Paris Game between the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls in the northeast of the city.

Macron in Barcelona 

Opinion polls show that around two-thirds of French people oppose raising the retirement age, a move that comes amid high inflation and with the country still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Macron’s last attempt at pension reform in 2019, aborted a year later when Covid-19 hit Europe, prompted the longest strike on the Paris transport network in three decades.

The 45-year-old centrist vowed to press ahead with plans to push back the retirement age during his successful re-election campaign last year, pointing to forecasts that the system could fall into heavy deficits at the end of the decade.

France’s current retirement age is one of the lowest in the European Union.

But unions are suspicious of the new overhaul, eager to protect those who started working at a young age or have been toiling in physically demanding jobs.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has defended the reform, still to be debated in parliament, as a way to ensure more “justice” for retirees.

“Four out of 10 French people, the most fragile, those of the most modest means, those who have tough jobs, will be able to retire before 64 years old,” she has told parliament.

Macron, however, will not be in France on today.

He and nine ministers will be attending a French-Spanish summit in Barcelona, though Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt will stay behind.

In 2010, more than a million people protested against the plan to raise the retirement age to 62, according to police figures, but the bill proposed by the right-wing government of president Nicolas Sarkozy was passed anyway.

 – © AFP 2023

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