France wants to raise the retirement age by two years. Why are thousands protesting?

Important points
  • The police used tear gas during the protests in Paris.
  • The government wants to raise the retirement age by two years to 64.
  • Railroads, schools and refineries are among those affected by the strike.
French workers went on strike on Thursday and joined nationwide demonstrations, stopping trains and cutting power generation to protest the government’s plans to raise the retirement age by two years to 64.
The disruptions are a major test for President Emmanuel Macron, who on Thursday said his pension reform plan, which opinion polls say is wildly unpopular, is “just and responsible” and must be carried out.

Protesters disagree.

“Wages and pensions must be increased, not the retirement age,” read a large banner carried by workers who opened the protest march in Tours, western France.
“I’ll have to get my walker ready if the reform goes through,” said Isabelle, 53, a social worker, saying her job is too tough to add two more years.

Hundreds of thousands took part in rallies across the country, according to police estimates from Le Monde newspaper.

In Nice in southern France, a large banner read: “No to reform”.
Police fired tear gas on the fringes of the Paris protests as black-clad, masked people in hoodies hurled projectiles at their lines.

About 20 people were arrested, said BFM TV, citing the police.

France pension protests

A protester walks past riot police during a demonstration against pension changes Thursday January 19, 2023 in Paris. Source: AAP / Lewis Jolly

The government says pension reform is crucial to ensure the system doesn’t go bust.

Raising the retirement age by two years and lengthening the enrollment period would generate an additional $27.8 billion in annual pension contributions, according to the Labor Department, allowing the system to break even by 2027.

Unions argue that there are other ways to keep the pension system viable, such as taxing the super-rich or increasing employer contributions or affluent pensioners.

‚ÄúThis problem can be solved in another way, through taxation. Workers shouldn’t have to pay for the public sector deficit,” said Laurent Berger, leader of CFDT, France’s largest trade union.
The challenge for unions is to turn opposition to reform – and anger at a cost of living crisis – into a mass social protest that could eventually force the government to change course.

Union leaders, who are expected to announce more strikes and protests later in the day, said Thursday was just the beginning.

Pension reform has yet to pass Parliament, where Macron has lost his outright majority but hopes to push it through with Conservative support.

Train drivers, teachers and refinery workers were among those who walked out, as well as nearly 45 percent of employees at utility giant EDF, the company said.

France pension protests

Demonstrators protect themselves as they pass riot police during a demonstration against pension changes Thursday January 19, 2023 in Paris. Source: AAP / Lewis Joly

Radio France Inter played music instead of its usual programming, and bus drivers and officials also stopped working.

Only between one in three and one in five high-speed TGV lines were operating, and there were hardly any local or regional trains, rail operator SNCF said.

The strike halted ferry crossings between Dover and Calais, a key sea route for trade between the UK and the continent.

Seven in 10 primary school teachers stopped working, and almost as many in secondary schools, their unions said, although the Department of Education gave much lower figures.
In Paris, students blocked at least one high school in support of the strike action.

Data from EDF and grid operator RTE showed that electricity production had fallen by about 10 percent of total electricity supply, prompting France to increase imports.

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