Saturday, October 28, 2023

France hit by massive nationwide strike over pension reform


French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 has sparked nationwide demonstrations, with an estimated 1.28 million people participating in a strike against the proposed reform. The figure suggests that the protests were some of the largest in decades, slightly higher than the 1.27 million estimated during a previous round of protests on January 31. The hard-left CGT union put the number of protesters at 3.5 million. Across the country, many protest rallies attracted bigger crowds than previous ones organised since mid-January, including in Marseille, one of France’s biggest cities, authorities and local media said.

The strike disrupted train services, shut schools and halted fuel deliveries on Tuesday, and will continue into Wednesday as unions step up their campaign to force a U-turn on the deeply unpopular policy. This is a critical time for both sides since Macron’s government is hoping his plan to raise the pension age by two years will be adopted by parliament by the end of the month. Looking to pile pressure on lawmakers, France’s more hardline unions said there would be rolling strikes that could go on for days, at least in some sectors.

Truck drivers and garbage collectors joined the strike on Tuesday as it extended to more sectors. The CGT union said workers had voted to prolong strikes at all TotalEnergies sites. “The real fight starts now,” said Marin Guillotin, FO union representative at the Donges refinery in western France. “We haven’t been heard or listened to. We are using the only means we have left: it’s the hard strike … we are not going to give up.”

Trains will continue to be disrupted on Wednesday, as will the Paris metro system, although to a slightly lesser degree than on Tuesday, said the SNCF and RATP transportation companies running them. Macron’s proposal to make people work longer is deeply unpopular amongst the wider public, opinion polls show. The government insists its reform plan is essential to ensure the pension system does not go bust. The government also says pensions of the poorest 30 percent of the population will increase by 2.5 to 5 percent.

Unions say small increases in contributions could keep the pension system solvent. They say the proposed measures are unfair and would disproportionately affect low-skilled workers in tiring jobs who start their careers early. There were some clashes on the margins of the Paris rally, and police said 22 people had been arrested.

The protests come as France faces a number of other challenges, including ongoing strikes by healthcare workers and teachers, as well as protests against police violence and racism. The country is also grappling with rising unemployment and a struggling economy, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Macron’s government has faced criticism for its handling of these issues, with many accusing it of being out of touch with ordinary people. The president has defended his policies, saying they are necessary to modernise the country and make it more competitive in a globalised world.

However, critics say his reforms are too harsh and will only exacerbate social inequality. They argue that Macron needs to do more to address the concerns of ordinary people and ensure that everyone has access to decent jobs, healthcare and education.

The protests are likely to continue in the coming days and weeks, as unions ramp up their campaign against Macron’s pension reform. It remains to be seen whether the government will back down or whether it will push ahead with its plans despite widespread opposition from the public and unions alike.

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