PARIS, Jan 19 – Trains ground to a halt, schools closed and businesses suspended in France on Thursday as workers walked off the job in a bid to derail a planned pension reform that would push the retirement age up two years to 64.
A nationwide day of strikes and protests is a major test for President Emmanuel Macron, who says his flagship reform is essential to ensure the pension system does not collapse.
Opinion polls show that French voters overwhelmingly reject his plan to let them work longer.
“There is nothing good about this reform,” Rozenn Cros said in the southern French city of Cannes as she and other teachers prepared to go on strike, carrying banners including “No 64.”
The challenge for unions, which are far less powerful in France than they used to be, is whether they can turn this opposition to reform – and anger over the cost of living crisis – into a mass social protest lasting beyond Thursday. and finally get the government to back down.
“This issue of pensions is taking away all the discontent,” hardline CGT union leader Philippe Martinez told Public Senat TV. “Today is going to be a very big mobilization day.”
At stake for Macron is his reform credentials, both at home and with his European Union colleagues, as well as keeping public spending under control.
Pushing the retirement age by two years and extending the payout period would generate an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.1 billion) in annual pension contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027, according to Labor Ministry estimates.
Unions say there are other ways to keep the pension system viable, such as taxing the super-rich or increasing contributions from employers or well-off pensioners.
‘BLOCK THE COUNTRY’?
Unions have identified the day as the starting point for further strikes and protests to follow.
“What nobody can know, and even the unions don’t know, is whether the French are cruel enough to … blockade the country,” said Sciences Po professor Bruno Palier.
The reform has yet to pass parliament, where Macron has lost his absolute majority, but he hopes it will be passed with the support of conservatives.
Public transport was severely disrupted on Thursday.
Only one in three to one in five high-speed TGV lines were operating, with almost no local or regional trains running, rail operator SNCF said.
Some seven in 10 primary school teachers said they would strike, their main union said.
The French energy company has been curtailed at eight nuclear reactors and some hydroelectric plants due to the strike, energy group EDF said.
TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne said one day of strikes and protests would not disrupt refinery operations, but that could change if the strikes were to continue.
Meanwhile, Macron and several of his ministers will be in Barcelona on Thursday for a meeting with the Spanish government.