Crippling strike drags on amid pension reform details

Eric Gaillard, REUTERS

The government unveiled details of a pension reform plan Wednesday that has already seen workers down tools in anticipation, crippling transport for a week as hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest.

The legal retirement age in France will remain 62 with the new French retirement plan, but workers will need to work until 64 to get a full pension, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced on Wednesday.

“We’ll maintain the legal retirement age of 62,” Philippe said, adding, “but we’ll encourage [the French] to work longer. The government intends to adopt the proposal of the high commissioner Jean-Paul Delevoye to introduce, above the legal age, an ‘age of equilibrium’ with a system of discounts and bonuses.”

In a speech at the Economic, Social and Environmental Council in Paris, on the seventh day of crippling countrywide strikes and protests, Philippe declared “the time has come to build a universal retirement system”.

He emphasised some of the concessions agreed to by the government, including that the overhaul would apply to those born before 1975 (as opposed to 1963, as had been previously stated).

“We’ve decided to change nothing for those who have already contributed toward their retirement for at least 17 years, which means, for those under the general retirement regime, those born before 1975 and who will be over 50 in 2025,” Philippe said.

The overhaul will apply fully only to those entering the labour force in 2022, also the final year of President Emmanuel Macron’s current term.

The new system will guarantee a pension of €1,000 minimum per month for those who have worked a full career, Philippe said.

“The implementation of the new universal system will mean the end of specific regimes,” he said, claiming that women would be the big winners of the new system.

Public workers have been on strike for seven days against the reforms, championed by President Emmanuel Macron, and unions have called for more protests on December 12 and December 17 following two mass demonstrations on Tuesday and last Thursday.

A speedy resolution of the stand-off appears unlikely, with Philippe warning Tuesday of a lengthy battle ahead as unions vowed not to yield.

The industrial action has paralysed public transport and disrupted national rail services and grounded many planes.

It is the biggest show of union force since Macron came to power in 2017 vowing to cut public spending and make the economy more competitive.

On Tuesday, 339,000 people took part in a second day of demonstrations over government plans to merge the country’s 42 pension schemes into one, according to interior ministry estimates.

The numbers, which unions claimed were far greater, were markedly down from the first day of the strike on December 5, when more than 800,000 people took to the streets.

The government has angered unions by promising to scrap the more advantageous pension provisions enjoyed by some professions – including public transport and utilities workers, sailors, notaries, and Paris Opéra performers.

Those opposing the reform accuse former investment banker Macron of trying to roll back France’s costly but highly cherished welfare state.

The official retirement age in France is 62 – one of the lowest among developed countries, and fiercely defended by the labour force.

Petrol refineries blocked

France’s most militant unions have sounded an uncompromising note, insisting they will not call off the strike unless the reform is scrapped outright, while others are demanding sweeping concessions.

The action has revived memories of three-week-long strikes over pension reform that crippled France in 1995, forcing the centre-right government of the day to reverse course.

Teachers joined the industrial action Tuesday for the second time in a week, closing many schools.

Julien Sergere, a 38-year-old teacher who marched in Paris, told AFP he was worried that a proposal to standardise the way pensions are calculated would leave teachers poorer.

“Our wages are low and until now the advantage we had was that our pensions were calculated on the basis of the last six months of our career, which compensated a bit.

“But today, they’re talking about the last 25 years, which could make our pensions fall by between €500 and €900 a month on average,” he said.

Disgruntled hospital workers, firefighters, students and Yellow Vest anti-government protesters also took part in protests, reflecting the broad level of dissatisfaction with Macron’s policies halfway through his mandate.

Striking workers blocked seven of France’s eight petrol refineries Tuesday, but the government said there had been no impact on petrol supplies.

Public transport in the capital remained at a near standstill, causing much frustration for working commuters and tourists alike.

On Wednesday, 10 out of Paris’s 16 métro lines were offline, four ran reduced services, and the only two driverless lines functioned as usual, according to operator RATP.

The head of commuter trains at SNCF, Alain Krakovitch, warned he expected the chaos to continue “until the end of the week”, but some labour leaders have vowed to fight until Christmas.

International trains will also be disrupted, the SNCF said.

Source: FRANCE 24 with AFP