France contends with widespread strikes as unions take to streets against pension reform

France contends with widespread strikes as unions take to streets against pension reform

A protester holds a placard reading “I don’t want to die on stage” during an anti-pension reform rally in Paris on January 19, 2023.

Thomas Samson | Afp | Getty Images

French unions and demonstrators have taken to the streets on Thursday in widespread industrial action against the government’s projected pension reforms.

President Emmanuel Macron’s administration seeks to raise France’s official retirement age from 62 — lower than much of Europe and the U.S. — to 64. This is the head of state’s second attempt to overhaul the pension system, after scrapping a 2019 proposal to introduce a point-based retirement plan during his first mandate due to public uproar. Macron cemented his pensions focus during this New Year address, stressing, “This will effectively be the year of retirement.”

Early indications suggest the latest bill is proving equally lackluster with the French public, with 68% appearing “hostile” to the measure, according to an IFOP study.

French syndical unions have made rare common front by agreeing protests against the bill.

“This reform will fully hit all workers and particularly those who began to work early, the most fragile whose life expectancy is lower than that of the rest of the population, and those whose level of work difficulty is not recognized,” said a joint statement signed by eight syndicates, according to a CNBC translation.

The organizations will convene Thursday evening to determine convening further industrial action.

Rail operator SNCF warned train travel will be “severely disrupted” by industrial action between 7 p.m. local time on 18 Jan. and 8 a.m. on Friday. Reuters reports that SNCF said only between one-in-three and one-in-five high-speed TGV lines were in operation on Thursday, with limited local or regional trains running.

TotalEnergies Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanne estimated that a short-term one-day mobilization should not lead to fuel supply shortages:

“A day, tomorrow, will not affect the functioning of refineries. Refineries stop if there are many days of strike,” he estimated in a BFM TV interviewaccording to a CNBC translation. “Do not panic: the stocks are full, the service stations are well-supplied.”

Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the General Confederation of Labor (GCT) union, on 18 Jan. floated the idea of cutting electricity supplies to the affluent of France. On Thursday, he appeared to soften this stance during an interview with Public Senat, when asked if there would be voluntary targeted electricity cuts to lawmakers who support the new retirement bill:

“It is not in our habit to do this,” he said, describing his earlier statements as a symbolic gesture rather than a threat. He reiterated his objections to the reform plan and stressed the syndicates’ willingness to continue strikes beyond the first day of industrial action, “It is a first day, therefore, we will have others.”

Government spokesperson Oliver Veran on Wednesday reproached the perceived threats as “strictly unacceptable,” per a CNBC translation:

He added, “Everything that will raise pressures, threats, insults, whether on social networks or in real life, regarding targeted action against the integrity of the functioning of a parliamentary mandate are unacceptable in a democracy and a Republic, and we condemn them.”

Laurent Bergere, secretary-general of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), on Thursday told BFM TV that “there must be a lot of people at these protests.”

He noted, “Firstly, I expect that the workers of this country who object, and they are many, to this retirement reform project — because they object with respect to [raising] the official retirement age to 64 years — come protest everywhere in France, across 200 locations.”

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