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French strikes fight pension reform

By JULIAN SHEA in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-01-20 09:18

Thousands of people take part in a demonstration in Paris, France on Thursday as workers went on strike for the day over their president's plan to raise the legal retirement age, from 62 to 64. ALAIN JOCARD/AFP

More than 200 demonstrations were expected to be held across France on Thursday as the country witnessed mass walkouts in protest against President Emmanuel Macron's highly contentious plans to reform the pension system, which could result in many employees having to work for longer than they had expected before retirement.

Under the proposals, starting in September this year, the current retirement age of 62 — one of the lowest in the European Union — would be raised by three months a year, with the aim of reaching the new target of 64 in 2030.

Ferries across the English Channel were suspended, as were Eurostar train services, deliveries from oil refineries were blockaded and public service broadcasters played music and showed re-run programs rather than live content, as the strike took effect.

The country's main teaching union estimated that 70 percent of primary school teachers would walk out, and state-owned energy company EDF lowered electricity output.

The proposals had previously prompted mass demonstrations in Dec 2019, with the interior ministry saying that more than 800,000 people took part in rallies in more than 100 cities, adding to existing political tensions fueled by the gilet jaunes yellow jacket protest movement, before the issue was put to one side in the early days of the pandemic.

When Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced the details of the planned changes earlier this month, she said they were necessary to prevent a major deficit building up as a problem for the future, and admitted that they would "spark fears and questions among the French people", as a recent opinion poll showed 80 percent of the population opposed the higher retirement age.

Failure to act, Borne said," would lead inevitably to a massive increase in taxes, a reduction in pensions and would pose a threat to our pensions system".

Macron has argued that change is needed to make France's labor force more efficient and competitive, but unions say it is a removal of workers' rights.

Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt acknowledged that the plans had raised "concerns" and admitted that they would require workers to make "an additional, collective effort", but pleaded with them to be reasonable in their strike actions.

"The right to strike is a freedom, but we do not want any blockades," he told LCI television.

Philippe Martinez, leader of the left-wing CGT union, says the way the proposals had "bundled together everyone's dissatisfaction" with the government and managed to unite so many often competing groups showed the seriousness of the situation, caused by what he called "dogmatic and ideological… unjust reform".

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