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Protesters on 19 January. Alamy Stock Photo
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France braces for new strikes against pension age increase

Around 1.1 million people took to the streets for the first strike day on 19 January and police expect a similar number tomorrow.

FRANCE BRACED TODAY for another day of mass protests and strikes over proposed pension overhauls being pushed by President Emmanuel Macron, with the government and its left-wing opponents trading blame for the expected disruptions.

Around 1.1 million people took to the streets for the first strike day on 19 January, according to official statistics, the biggest demonstrations since the last major round of pension reform under right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010.

A police source told AFP that security forces were expecting similarly sized crowds tomorrow in 240 demonstrations around the country, in addition to strike disruptions to transport, schools and other services.

With unions warning that more stoppages are to come, the strikes represent a major test for Macron as he seeks to implement a showcase policy of his second term in office.

The most controversial part of the proposed reform is hiking the minimum retirement age to 64 from 62, which is the lowest level in any major European economy.

Macron said today that the reform was “essential when we compare ourselves to the rest of Europe”.

But Mathilde Panot, a senior lawmaker from the far-left France Unbowed (LFI) party, has accused the centrist president and his ministers of being responsible for the stoppages that are to cripple public transport and other services.

“They’re the ones who want to wreak havoc on the country,” she told BFM television while also criticising comments by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin over the weekend as a “provocation.”

Darmanin, a close Macron ally, said Saturday that left-wing political parties were “only looking to screw up the country” and were defending “idleness and champagne socialism”.

Macron’s reputation

Macron, who made the pension changes part of his re-election manifesto last year, says it is needed to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.

Opponents point out that the system is currently balanced, noting that the head of the independent Pensions Advisory Council recently told parliament that “pension spending is not out of control, it’s relatively contained”.

For Macron, who has repeatedly told French people they “need to work more”, failure to succeed with a signature proposal would severely undermine his credibility for the remainder of his second and last term in office, analysts say.

The government headed by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has signalled there is wiggle room on some measures as parliamentary committees started examining the draft law today.

Conditions could be improved for people who started working very young, or for mothers who interrupted their careers to look after children and people who invested in further education, Borne has suggested.

But the headline age limit of 64 is not up for discussion, she said Sunday, calling it “non-negotiable”.

Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT union, warned that the government “cannot remain deaf to this formidable mobilisation.”

“Listen, listen, listen to this discontent,” he told France 2 television.

Parliamentary battle

Most Paris metro and suburban rail services will be severely restricted tomorrow, said operator RATP, while intercity travel will be disrupted with just one in three high-speed TGV trains running, according to SNCF.

Air travel is less badly affected, with Air France saying it would cancel one in 10 short and medium haul services while long-distance flights would be unaffected.

Only minor disruption is expected on international Thalys and Eurostar train services.

Around half of all nursery and primary school teachers would be striking, the main teachers’ union Snuipp-FSU said.

Macron and his allies are also facing struggles in parliament as well as on the street.

The left-wing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft legislation in a bid to slow its path through parliament.

Macron’s centrist allies, short of an absolute majority in parliament, will need votes from conservatives to get the pensions plan approved.

A new poll by the OpinionWay survey group, published in the Les Echos financial daily today, showed that 61 percent of French people supported the protest movement, a rise of three percentage points from 12 January.

– © AFP 2023

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