PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to press ahead with unpopular pension reforms that will raise the country’s retirement age, despite massive protests and nationwide strikes.
In a press conference Thursday at a Franco-Spanish summit in Barcelona, Macron said “we have to do this reform.”
“We will do so with respect, in a spirit of dialogue but also of determination and responsibility,” he added.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s previous story follows below.
PARIS (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Paris and other French cities on Thursday against planned pension reforms that would raise the retirement age, in a day of strikes and protests nationwide seen as a major test for Emmanuel Macron and his presidency.
Strikes severely disrupted transport, schools and other public services across France.
French workers would have to work longer before receiving a pension under the new rules – with the nominal retirement age rising from 62 to 64. In a country with an aging population and rising life expectancy where everyone receives a state pension, the Macron government says reform is the only way to keep the system solvent.
Unions argue that the pension overhaul threatens hard-won rights and are proposing a tax on the rich or more payroll contributions from employers to fund the pension system. Polls suggest that most French people also oppose the reform.
More than 200 rallies were held across France on Thursday, including a large one in Paris involving all major French unions.
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 am here to defend young people and workers who do demanding jobs. I work in the construction sector and I am a direct witness to the suffering of employees.
Many young people were among the Parisian crowd, chanting “youth protests. Macron, you are finished. Secondary student unions had urged members to join the protests.
Nathan Arsac, 19, a student and member of the UNEF union, said: “I’m afraid of what will happen next. Losing our social achievements could happen so fast. I’m afraid of the future when I’m older and have to retire.
Sylvie Béchard, a 59-year-old nurse, said she joined the march because “we caregivers are physically exhausted”.
“The only thing we have is to protest and block the country’s economy,” she added.
The economic cost of the strikes was not immediately clear. The government fears a big show of resistance on Thursday could encourage unions to pursue prolonged walkouts that could cripple the economy just as France battles inflation and tries to boost growth.
Police unions opposed to pension reform have also taken part in the protests, while those on duty are bracing for possible violence if extremist groups join the protests.
Most train services in France have been canceled, including some international connections, according to SNCF. About 20% of flights departing from Orly airport in Paris have been canceled and airlines have been warned of delays.
According to the Ministry of National Education, some 34 to 42% of teachers were on strike, depending on the schools.
Thierry Desassis, a retired teacher, called the government’s plan “an aberration”.
“It’s at 64 that you start to have health problems. I’m 68 and healthy, but I’ve started seeing doctors more often,” he said.
The strike also affected certain monuments. The Palace of Versailles was closed on Thursday while the Eiffel Tower warned of possible disruptions and the Louvre museum said some exhibition halls would remain closed.
Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the CGT union, urged Macron to “listen to the street”.
Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT union, called the reform “unfair” and said “there will be other days of action”.
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 compelled to work on Thursday when he understood “most of the strikers’ demands”. With an aging population in the country, he said, raising the retirement age “is not an effective strategy. If we do it now, the government could decide to increase it more in 30 or 50 years. We cannot predict.
Coelho said he did not trust the government and was already saving money for his pension.
French Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt has acknowledged “concerns” over pension schemes that will force workers to “go the extra mile”.
Speaking on LCI television, Dussopt justified the choice to raise the retirement age because the government rejected other options of raising taxes – which he said would hurt the economy and cost jobs – or cut pensions.
The French government officially presents 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 strikes and demonstrations.
Most opposition parties, including the left and far right, are strongly opposed to the plan. Macron’s centrist alliance lost its parliamentary majority last year but still has the largest constituency in the National Assembly, where it has a good chance of teaming up with the conservative Les Républicains party to endorse the reform retirements.
Under the planned changes, workers must have worked for at least 43 years to qualify for a full pension. For those who do not meet this condition, like many women who interrupted their career to raise children or those who studied for a long time and started working late, the retirement age would remain unchanged at 67.
Those who started working early, before the age of 20, and workers with major health problems would be allowed to retire early.
Extended strikes met Macron’s latest effort to raise retirement age in 2019. He eventually retired it after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pension rules vary widely from country to country, making direct comparisons difficult. The official retirement age in the United States is now 67, and countries in Europe have raised retirement ages as populations age and fertility rates decline.
But opponents of Macron’s reform note that under the French system people are already required to work more years overall than in some neighboring countries to receive a full pension.
The plan is also seen by many as endangering the welfare state that is at the heart of French society.
AP reporter Alexander Turnbull contributed to the story.