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France: Over 1 million protest against raising the retirement age

France: Over 1 million protest against raising the retirement age

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PARIS (AP) — At least 1.1 million people protested in the streets of Paris and other French cities Thursday amid nationwide strikes against plans to raise the retirement age — but President Emmanuel Macron insisted he would press ahead with the proposed pension reforms.

Emboldened by the massive show of resistance, French unions announced new strikes and protests on January 31, vowing to try to force the government to abandon plans for raising the standard retirement age from 62 to 64. Macron says the measure – a central pillar of his second term – is needed to keep the pension system financially viable, but unions say it threatens workers’ hard-fought rights.

Out of the country for a Franco-Spanish summit in BarcelonaMacron acknowledged public discontent but said “we have to do this reform” to “save” French pensions.

“We will do it respectfully, in a spirit of dialogue, but also of determination and responsibility,” he added.

As Macron spoke, riot police pushed back some protesters throwing projectiles on the sidelines of the largely peaceful march in Paris. Some other minor incidents briefly erupted, prompting officers to use tear gas.

Paris police said 38 people were detained as masses of people thronged the capital’s streets despite freezing rain, a crowd so large it took hours to reach their destination. Retirees and students joined the diverse crowd, united in their fear and anger at the reform.

In a country with aging population and increasing life expectancy where everyone receives a state pension, Macron’s government says reform is the only way to keep the system solvent.

Unions are proposing instead a tax on the rich or more employer contributions to fund the pension system.

Polls show most French people oppose the reform, and Thursday was the first public backlash against Macron’s plan. The strikes severely disrupted transport, schools and other public services, and over 200 rallies were organized across France.

The interior ministry said more than 1.1 million people protested, including 80,000 in Paris. Unions said more than 2 million people took part across the country and 400,000 in Paris.

Large crowds have also gathered for protests against previous pension reform efforts, notably during Macron’s first term and under former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. But neither attracted more than 1 million people, according to government estimates.

Jean-Paul Cachina, 56, a human resources worker, joined the march in the French capital – a first for him.

“I’m not here for myself,” he said. “I’m here to protect the youth and the workers who do the hard work. I work in the construction industry and have witnessed first-hand the suffering of employees.”

Among the crowd in Paris were many young people, including high school students.

Nathan Arsak, 19, a student and member of the UNEF union, said: “I’m scared of what will happen next. The loss of our social accomplishments can happen so quickly. I fear the future when I get old and have to retire.

Sylvie Bechard, a 59-year-old nurse, said she joined the march because “we health workers are physically exhausted.”

“All we have is to demonstrate and block the country’s economy,” she added.

The economic cost of Thursday’s strikes was not immediately clear, but a prolonged walkout could hamper the economy just as France is battling inflation and trying to boost growth.

Police unions opposed to pension reform also took part in the protests as on-duty officers tried to contain the unrest.

Most train services in France were suspended, including some international connections, and around 20% of flights from Orly airport in Paris were cancelled.

The education ministry said more than a third of teachers were on strike, and national electricity company EDF said electricity supplies had been significantly reduced on Thursday amid the strikes.

The Palace of Versailles was closed on Thursday, while the Eiffel Tower warned of potential disruption and the Louvre museum closed some exhibition halls.

Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the hard-left CGT union, called on Macron to “listen to the street”.

Laurent Berger, head of the more moderate CFDT union, called the reform “unfair” and said Thursday’s resistance was a warning sign.

Many French workers expressed mixed feelings about the government’s plan and pointed to the complexity of the pension system.

Quentin Coelho, 27, a Red Cross worker, felt he had to work on Thursday, even though he understood “most of the strikers’ demands”. Coelho said he fears the government will continue to raise the retirement age, so he is already saving money for his pension.

Others worry that the reform will hit lower-income workers, who live on less than the rich, harder.

“This is a social problem. Do you want to retire sick, broke and even dead? Or do you want to enjoy life?” asked Fabien Villedio, a 45-year-old railway worker.

French Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt acknowledged the “concern” raised by the pension plans, but said the government had ruled out other options including raising taxes – which he said would hurt the economy and cost jobs – or cut pensions.

The French government formally presented the pension bill on Monday and it will head to parliament next month. Its success will depend in part on the scale and duration of strikes and protests.

Most opposition parties, including the left and far-right, are strongly against the plan. Macron’s centrist alliance lost its parliamentary majority last year but still has the largest group in the National Assembly, where it hopes to ally with the conservative Republican Party to approve pension reforms.

Under the planned changes, workers must have worked for at least 43 years to be eligible for a full pension. For those who do not meet this condition, such as many women who have interrupted their careers to raise children or those who studied for a long time and started working late, the retirement age will remain unchanged at 67.

Those who started work under the age of 20 and workers with serious health problems will be entitled to early retirement.

Prolonged strikes have met Macron’s latest attempt to raise the retirement age in 2019. He eventually withdrew it after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Retirement rules vary widely from country to country, making direct comparisons difficult. The official retirement age in the US is now 67, and countries across Europe are raising retirement ages as populations age and birth rates decline.

But opponents of Macron’s reform point out that under the French system, people already have to work more years overall than in some neighboring countries to get a full pension. Many also believe the plan threatens the welfare state that is central to French society.

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Alexander Turnbull, Oleg Chetinich and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.


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