PARIS: Strikes crippled much of France’s public transport on Thursday as protesters came out in force against a deeply unpopular pensions overhaul, with schools and media also heavily affected.
Presented by President Emmanuel Macron’s government last week, it would raise the retirement age for most from 62 — among the lowest in the EU — to 64. It would also increase the years of contributions required for a full pension.
France’s trade unions called for a mass mobilisation, the first time they have united since 12 years ago, when the retirement age was hiked from 60 to 62. The unions are hoping for over a million demonstrators in more than 200 cities across France.
But French media have reported that police had prepared for 550,000 to 750,000 protesters, including 50,000 to 80,000 in the capital. Macron was not in France on Thursday.
At a French-Spanish summit in Barcelona, he defended what he called a “fair and responsible reform”, and said he hoped the protests would not derail into “violence”.
In Paris, sanitation worker Hamidou, 43, was among thousands who gathered to demonstrate.
“Macron wants us to die on the job,” he said. “We get up very early. Some colleagues wake up at 3am. Working until 64 is too much.” Nearby, 15-year-old Charlie Perrin decried an ever-retreating retirement age.
“The way things are going, we’ll be almost unable to walk or live by the time we’re given the right to retire,” she said. Almost one public sector worker in three was on strike by midday, the government estimated.
In the northwestern region of Brittany, carpenter and roofer Laurent Quere, 42, said he was fiercely opposed to having to work longer.
“What client in their right mind would employ us on a work site aged 64?” he said.
The strikes disrupted public transport in the capital, with one metro line closed and others running less frequently than usual, as many overland trains were cancelled throughout France.
Many parents were looking after their children as some 40 per cent of primary school teachers and more than 30 percent in the secondary system walked out, according to official estimates. Unions put strike participation much higher, at 70 and 65pc respectively.
Strikers at state-owned energy provider EDF said they had lowered electricity output by 7,000 megawatts, while grid operator RTE put the figure at 5,000 MW — enough to power two cities the size of Paris.
But the CGT union federation said the reduction would have “no impact on users”.
Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-left CGT union, told broadcaster Public Senat earlier on Thursday the planned pension reform “bundles together everyone’s dissatisfaction” with the government, and that the rare, united front among worker representatives showed “the problem is very serious”.
“This will be a big day of mobilisation, especially with all the unions on the same page,” Martinez said. “We all agree that the reform is unjust.” Transport Minister Clement Beaune has warned it would be “a hellish Thursday”, urging all those who can to work from home.
With Paris metros and buses in disarray, basketball fans could encounter trouble as they try to reach the sold-out NBA Paris Game between the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls in the northeast of the city in the evening.
Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2023