6 Dec 2019

French pension protests paralyse transport, schools

8:37 am on 6 December 2019

France's largest nationwide strike in years has severely disrupted schools and transport.

Protesters against the pension reform planned by Edouard Phillipe's government in downtown Toulouse. According to an initial assessment, the event brought together 100,000 people according to the unions, 33,000 people according to the prefecture of Haute Garonne. December 5, 2019, Toulouse, France.

Protesters against the pension reform gather in downtown Toulouse. Unions said the event brought together about 100,000, though the prefecture of Haute Garonne said it was 33,000 people. Photo: Frédéric Scheiber / Hans Lucas

Workers are angry about planned pension reforms that would see them retiring later or facing reduced payouts.

Teachers and transport workers have been joined by police, lawyers, hospital and airport staff, and other professions for a general walkout.

President Emmanuel Macron wants to introduce a universal points-based pension system to replace France's current system, which has 42 different pension schemes across its private and public sectors with variations in retirement age and benefits.

"What we've got to do is shut the economy down," union official Christian Grolier of the Force Ouvrière (Workers' Force) said. "People are spoiling for a fight."

Since coming to power, Mr Macron has pushed through other reforms including relaxing labour laws and cutting taxes for businesses.

By 4pm local time on Thursday, 280,000 people had joined demonstrations in 40 cities across France, not including Paris and Lyon.

The CGT union said workers had blocked seven of the country's eight oil refineries, potentially causing fuel shortages if the strike continues.

In Paris a march began at 14:00 local time. Popular tourist sites including the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d'Orsay and the Palace of Versailles have shut for the day.

Protestors gather near the "Triomphe de la Republique" statue among flares during a demonstration against the pension overhauls, in Paris, on December 5, 2019 as part of a nationwide strike.

Protesters with flares gather near the "Triomphe de la Republique" statue in Paris. Photo: AFP

There were also reports of some clashes between protesters and police. By 16:00 local time, police in Paris had detained 40 people, Le Parisien reported. In the western city of Nantes, protesters were tear-gassed after some threw projectiles at police.

Transport effects

  • About 90 percent of high-speed TVG (rail) and inter-city trains have been cancelled
  • In Paris, just five of the city's 16 metro lines are running
  • Train operators Eurostar and Thalys have cancelled at least half their services linking Paris with London and Brussels. Eurostar will operate a reduced timetable until 10 December
  • Hundreds of flights have been cancelled
  • Air France has cancelled 30 percent of internal flights and 10 percent of short-haul international flights amid walkouts by air traffic controllers
  • Low-cost carrier EasyJet has cancelled 223 domestic and short-haul international flights, and warned passengers to expect delays

Meanwhile the Extinction Rebellion group said it had sabotaged thousands of e-scooters by painting over the QR codes that smartphone users scan to unlock the vehicles.

The group said this was because e-scooters - despite being widely viewed as an ecologically-friendly form of transport - actually required large quantities of energy and resources during their manufacture and had short life cycles.

How do French workers view the reforms?

Train driver Cyril Romero from Toulouse told France Info he would reconsider his job if the reforms went through.

"I started in 2001 with a contract that allowed me to leave at 50. But like everyone else, I got the reforms which pushed back my early retirement age to 52-and-a-half and then, in reality, 57-and-a-half for full pension. Now they want to make us work even longer."

An unnamed history teacher, writing in HuffPost, was planning to strike on Friday as well as Thursday.

"For me, the pension reforms are one punch too many. We're fighting not to lose hundreds of euros of pension a month - after more than 40 years in a job.

A man holds a placard reading "No choice: the strike or the death" during a demonstration against the pension overhauls, in Bordeaux, on December 5, 2019, as part of a national general strike.

A man holds a placard reading "No choice: the strike or the death" during a demonstration against the pension overhauls in Bordeaux. Photo: NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP

"How can you even dream of ending your career in front of pupils beyond the age of 70, in worsening conditions and on what for many of us is just a minimum wage?"

Some trade union leaders have vowed to strike until Mr Macron abandons his campaign promise to overhaul the retirement system.

One opinion poll put public support for the strikes at 69 percent, with backing strongest among 18- to 34-year-olds.

Farmers, whose pensions are among the lowest in the country, are not taking part however.

The Macron administration will hope to avoid a repeat of the country's general strike over pension reforms in 1995, which crippled the transport system for three weeks and drew massive popular support, forcing a government reversal.

A number of "gilets jaunes" (yellow-vest) protesters said they planned to join the demonstrations.

The movement, which emerged at the end of 2018, started with demonstrations against a sharp increase in diesel taxes, but has broadened to reflect anger over higher living costs and President Macron's economic policies.

Are Macron's reforms really that controversial?

Mr Macron's unified system - which he says would be fairer - would reward employees for each day worked, awarding points that would later be transferred into future pension benefits.

The official retirement age has been raised in the last decade from 60 to 62, but remains one of the lowest among the OECD group of rich nations - in the UK, for example, the retirement age for state pensions is 66 and is due to rise to at least 67.

The move would remove the most advantageous pensions for a number of jobs ranging from sailors to lawyers and even opera workers.

Meanwhile, those retiring before 64 would receive a lower pension. For example, someone retiring at 63 would receive 5% less, so unions fear it will mean having to work longer for a lower pension.

A recent poll concluded that 75 percent of people thought that pension reforms were necessary, but only a third believed the government could deliver them.