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National strike to say “no” to Macron’s pension reform

  • The government wants to raise the retirement age by two years to 64
  • Railways, schools and refineries among those affected by strike
  • Macron’s reform credentials at stake in dispute
  • Polls show broad opposition to pension reform

NICE/TOURS, Jan 19 (Reuters) – French workers went on strike and joined marches across the country on Thursday, halting trains and cutting power generation in a national day of protest against plans government to raise the retirement age by two years to 64.

The work stoppages are a major test for President Emmanuel Macron, who says his pension reform plan, which opinion polls show is hugely unpopular, is key to ensuring the system does not collapse.

Pushing back the retirement age by two years and extending the contribution period would bring in an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.1 billion) in annual pension contributions, allowing the system to break even. by 2027, according to Labor Department estimates.

“This reform is necessary and fair,” said Minister of Labor Olivier Dussopt on LCI TV.

But protesters disagreed.

“It is wages and pensions that must be increased, not the retirement age,” read a large banner carried by workers that opened the protest march in Tours, western France .

“I will have to prepare my walker if the reform passes,” said Isabelle, 53, a social worker, believing that her work was too hard to add two more years.

Brigitte Meny, a pre-retiree, said she was demonstrating in solidarity with her former colleagues.

“Sixty-four is too old,” she said. “And I’m also here because I’m sick of Macron.”

In Nice, in the south of France, a large banner read: “No to reform”.

The unions argue that there are other ways to ensure the sustainability of the pension system, such as taxing the super-rich or increasing the contributions of employers or those of wealthy pensioners.

The challenge for them is to turn opposition to reform – and anger over the cost of living crisis – into mass social protest that could eventually force the government to change course.

Union leaders, who are expected to announce further strikes and protests in the evening, said Thursday was just the start.

“We need a lot of people to join the protests,” Laurent Berger, head of France’s biggest trade union, the CFDT, told BFM TV. “People are against this reform… we have to show it (in the streets).”

MUSICAL INTERMUDE

The pension reform still has to go through parliament, where Macron has lost his absolute majority but hopes to get it passed with the support of the Conservatives.

Train drivers, teachers and refinery workers were among those quitting their jobs. France Inter radio broadcast its music playlist instead of its usual programming and bus drivers and civil servants also went on strike.

Only between one in three and one in five TGV lines were in service, with barely any local or regional trains in circulation, rail operator SNCF said.

In Paris, some metro stations were closed and traffic was severely disrupted, with few trains in circulation.

At the busy Gare du Nord station, people rushed to catch the few trains still running as employees in yellow vests helped frazzled commuters.

Restaurant worker Beverly Gahinet, who took time off work because her train was cancelled, said she agreed with the strike even though she was not participating.

But not all were so understanding.

“I don’t understand, it’s always the same (people) who are on strike… and we have to put up with it,” said Virginie Pinto, a real estate agent, as she struggled to find a metro to go to work.

A ban on walkouts in 2007 and restrictions on strikes to guarantee minimum public services limited the ability of unions to undermine governments’ reform ambitions.

The fact that working from home has been much more common since the pandemic could also have an impact.

TAX THE RICH?

Public sector workers are often on the front lines of strikes, and about seven in 10 primary school teachers have stopped work, and almost as many in high schools, their unions said, although the Education Ministry gave figures much lower.

In Paris, students blocked at least one high school in support of the strike.

Data from EDF and grid operator RTE showed electricity generation had fallen by around 12% of total electricity supply, prompting France to increase imports.

Shipments have been blocked at TotalEnergies (TTEF.PA) refineries in France, union and company officials said. TotalEnergies chief executive Patrick Pouyanne said on Wednesday that a one-day strike would not disrupt refinery operations, but that could change if protests continue.

The impact on air traffic was largely limited to a reduction of approximately 20% of flights at Orly, Paris’ second airport. Air France said it operated all of its long-haul flights and 90% of its short and medium-haul flights.

Macron and several of his ministers were meanwhile in Barcelona on Thursday for a meeting with Spanish officials.

Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, Michaela Cabrera, Dominique Vidalon, Yiming Woo, Antony Paone, Tassilo Hummel, Forrest Crellin, Juliette Jabkhiro in Paris, Eric Gaillard in Cannes, Marine Strauss in Brussels; Written by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Nick Macfie

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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