West News Wire: On Thursday amid nationwide strikes, at least 1.1 million people protest against plans to raise the retirement age on the streets of Paris and other French cities, but President Emmanuel Macron said he would move forward with the suggested pension changes.
The massive display of opposition emboldened French unions, which on January 31 announced new strikes and rallies in an effort to pressure the government to reconsider its plans to raise the standard retirement age from 62 to 64. Unions claim that the move, which is a cornerstone of Macron’s second term, threatens the hard-won rights of workers while he claims that it is necessary to maintain the financial viability of the pension system.
Out of the country for a French-Spanish summit in Barcelona, Macron acknowledged the public discontent but said that “we must do that reform” to “save” French pensions.
“We will do it with respect, in a spirit of dialogue but also determination and responsibility,” he added.
As Macron spoke, riot police pushed back against some protesters throwing projectiles on the sidelines of the largely peaceful Paris march. Other minor incidents briefly flared up, leading officers to use tear gas.
Paris police said that 38 people were detained as people thronged the streets of the capital despite freezing rain, the crowd so big that it took hours to reach their destination. Retirees and college students joined the diverse crowd, united in their fear and anger over the proposal.
In a country with an aging population and growing life expectancy and where everyone receives a state pension, Macron’s government says the change is the only way to keep the system solvent.
Unions propose a tax on the wealthy or more payroll contributions from employers to finance the pension system instead.
Polls suggest most French people oppose Macron’s plan, and Thursday was the first public reaction to it. Strikes severely disrupted transportation, schools and other public services, and more than 200 rallies were staged around the country.
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 nationwide, and 400,000 in Paris.
Big crowds also turned out for protests against previous efforts at retirement change, notably during Macron’s first term and under then-President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. But none of those drew more than 1 million people, according to government estimates.
Many young people were among the Paris crowd, including high school students.
The economic cost of Thursday’s strikes wasn’t immediately clear, but protracted walkouts could hobble the economy just as France is struggling against inflation and trying to boost growth.
Police unions opposed to the retirement change also took part in the protests, while those on duty sought to contain scattered unrest.
Most train services around France were halted, including some international connections, and about 20% of flights out of Paris’ Orly Airport were canceled.
The Education Ministry said more than a third of teachers were on strike, and national electricity company EDF announced that power supplies were substantially reduced Thursday amid the strikes.
The Palace of Versailles was closed Thursday, while the Eiffel Tower warned about potential disruptions and the Louvre Museum closed some exhibition rooms.
Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the hard-left CGT union, urged Macron to “listen to the street.”
French Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt acknowledged “concerns” prompted by the pension plans but said the government rejected other options involving raising taxes which he said would hurt the economy and cost jobs or reducing pensions.
The French government is formally presenting 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 the strikes and protests.