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France wants to raise its retirement age by two years. Why are thousands protesting?

Key Points
  • Police fire tear gas on fringes of Paris protest.
  • Government wants to raise retirement age by two years to 64.
  • Railways, schools and refineries among those hit by strike.

French workers went on strike and joined marches across the country on Thursday, halting trains and cutting electricity production in protest against government plans to raise the retirement age by two years to 64.

The stoppages are a major test for President Emmanuel Macron, who said on Thursday that his pension reform plan, which opinion polls show is hugely unpopular, was “just and responsible” and had to be carried out.

Protesters disagreed.

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

“I’ll have to prepare my walking frame if the reform goes through,” said Isabelle, 53, a social worker, saying her job was too tough to add two more years.

Hundreds of thousands took part in rallies across the country, according to police estimates combined by Le Monde newspaper.

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

Police fired tear gas on the fringes of the Paris protest when black-clad, masked individuals in hoodies hurled projectiles at their lines.

About 20 people were arrested, BFM TV said, quoting police.

France Pension Protests

A demonstrator walks past riot police officers during a demonstration against pension changes, on Thursday, 19 January 2023 in Paris. Source: AAP / Lewis Joly

The government says the pension reform is vital to ensure the system does not go bust.

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Pushing back the retirement age by two years and extending the pay-in period would bring an additional $27.8 billion in annual pension contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027, according to Labour Ministry estimates.

Unions argue there are other ways to ensure the viability of the pension system such as taxing the super-rich or increasing employers’ contributions or those of well-off pensioners.

“This problem can be solved in a different way, through taxation. Workers should not have to pay for the public sector deficit,” Laurent Berger, the leader of CFDT, France’s biggest labour union, said.

The challenge for the unions is to transform opposition to the reform – and anger over a cost-of-living crisis – into a mass social protest which could eventually force the government to change tack.

Union leaders, expected to announce more strikes and protests later in the day, said Thursday was just the beginning.

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

Train drivers, teachers and refinery workers were among those who walked off their jobs, as well as nearly 45 per cent of staff at utility giant EDF, the company said.

France Pension Protests

Demonstrators protect themselves as they pass riot police officers during a demonstration against pension changes, on Thursday, 19 January 2023, in Paris. Source: AAP / Lewis Joly

France Inter radio played music instead of its usual programming, and bus drivers and civil servants also stopped work.

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Only between one-in-three and one-in-five high-speed TGV lines were operating, with barely any local or regional trains running, the SNCF rail operator said.

The strike halted ferry crossings between Dover and Calais, a major sea route for trade between the United Kingdom and the continent.

Seven out of 10 primary school teachers stopped work, and nearly as many in high schools, their unions said, although the Education Ministry gave much lower figures.

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

EDF and grid operator RTE data showed electricity production was down by roughly 10 per cent of the total power supply, prompting France to raise imports.

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