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France hit by nationwide strikes over Macron pension reform

The strikes have crippled the public transport system and forced many to take the day off work

TGV trains (high speed train) are parked at a SNCF depot station in Charenton-le-Pont near Paris. Reuters
TGV trains (high speed train) are parked at a SNCF depot station in Charenton-le-Pont near Paris. Reuters

French public sector workers launched one of the biggest national strikes in years on Thursday in protest at President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms.

Teachers, railway workers and emergency room medics are unhappy with Mr Macron’s plans for a “universal” retirement system, which would mean some public sector workers face retiring later or would have reduced pensions.

French daily Le Monde described the strikes, which have been compared to similar protests over pensions in November-December 1995 that paralysed the country for three weeks, as "the moment of truth for Macron".

"The next days are a decisive test for the head of state," the newspaper wrote.

It poses the biggest threat to the French president's centrist reforms since the "yellow vest" protests.

The strikes, which could last several days, crippled France’s public transport system on Thursday morning.

Around 90 per cent of high-speed TGV and intercity trains have been cancelled. While in Paris 11 out of 16 of the city’s metro lines were shut down.

Air France has cancelled 30 per cent of domestic flights and 15 per cent of short-haul international routes.

A railworker holds a flare during a mass stirke in the Old Port of Marseille, southern France. AP
A railworker holds a flare during a mass stirke in the Old Port of Marseille, southern France. AP

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said on Wednesday that just three in 10 schools would be able to open.

With schools shut down because teachers were either striking or unable to get to work, many employees outside of the public sector were forced to work from home or take the day off.

Paris’s most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower, was closed to visitors because of the strike.

"There are not enough employees to open the monument in secure conditions," the tower's operator said in a statement.

Police and lawyers have joined in the mass walkout on Thursday, which could include millions of people.

Mr Macron wants to move public sector workers to a universal points-based scheme, abolishing the 42 different pension systems that currently exist.

Unions argue the changes would mean workers would end up working well beyond the retirement age of 62 to receive their full pension. There are also concerns, under a centrally-managed points-based system, they will lose their say on contributions and benefits.

"The idea of social concertation that Macron says is so important in fact doesn't exist," the head of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, said on BFM television.

epa08046785 Protesters protect themselves behind a banner reading 'Marx or Die' as they throw projectiles during a demonstration against pension reforms Paris, France, 05 December 2019. Unions representing railway and transport workers and many others in the public sector have called for a general strike and demonstration to protest against French government's reform of the pension system. EPA/YOAN VALAT
epa08046785 Protesters protect themselves behind a banner reading 'Marx or Die' as they throw projectiles during a demonstration against pension reforms Paris, France, 05 December 2019. Unions representing railway and transport workers and many others in the public sector have called for a general strike and demonstration to protest against French government's reform of the pension system. EPA/YOAN VALAT

Reforming pensions was one of Mr Macron’s key election campaigns and recent polling suggested that 75 per cent of the French public believe changes to the retirement system are necessary.

However, so far the strikes appear to be attracting widespread support.

France’s prime minister Edouard Philippe has indicated concessions could be made on the timing of the reform but added the government will not back down on the introduction of the points-based system.

Updated: December 5, 2019 07:29 PM

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