PARIS (AP) — At least 1.1 million people took to the streets of Paris and other French cities on Thursday to protest nationwide strikes against plans to raise the retirement age — but President Emmanuel Macron insisted he will push ahead with proposed pension reforms.
Encouraged by the mass demonstration of resistance, French unions announced new strikes and protests. 31, and vowed to try to get the government to back out of the plans Raising the normal retirement age from 62 to 64 years. Macron says the measure – a key pillar of his second term – is necessary to keep the pension system financially sustainable, but unions say it threatens hard-won workers’ rights.
Out of the country for a Franco-Spanish Summit in BarcelonaMacron acknowledged the public dissatisfaction but said that “we need to do this reform” to “save” French pensions.
“We will do it with respect, in a spirit of dialogue, but also with determination and responsibility,” he added.
As Macron spoke, riot police fought back some protesters who threw projectiles on the sidelines of the largely peaceful march in Paris. A few other minor incidents briefly flared up, prompting officers to use tear gas.
Paris police said 38 people were arrested as crowds thronged the streets of the capital despite freezing rain. The crowd was so large that it took them hours to reach their destination. Retirees and students joined the mixed crowd, united in their fear and anger at the reform.
In a country with a aging population and increasing life expectancy where everyone receives a state pension, Macron’s government says reform is the only way to keep the system solvent.
The unions propose instead a tax on the wealthy or more wage contributions from employers to fund the pension system.
Polls suggest most French people are against the reform, and Thursday saw the first public reaction to Macron’s plan. Strikes severely affected transport, schools and other public services, and more than 200 rallies were held across France.
According to the Interior Ministry, more than 1.1 million people protested, including 80,000 in Paris. According to unions, more than 2 million people took part nationwide, in Paris 400,000.
Large crowds also flocked to protests against previous pension reform efforts, particularly during Macron’s first term and under former President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. But none of them drew more than 1 million people, according to government estimates.
Jean Paul Cachina, 56, a human resources officer, joined the march in the French capital in a first for him.
“I’m not here for me,” he said. “I’m here to defend youth and workers in demanding jobs. I work in the construction industry and I have witnessed firsthand the suffering of workers.”
Many young people were among the Paris crowd, including high school students.
Nathan Arsac, 19, a student and member of the UNEF union, said: “I’m scared of what’s going to happen next. The loss of our social gains could happen so quickly. I’m scared of the future when I’m older and have to retire.”
Sylvie Béchard, a 59-year-old nurse, said she joined the march because “we, the healthcare workers, are physically exhausted”.
“The only thing we have is to demonstrate and block the country’s economy,” she added.
The economic cost of Thursday’s strikes was not immediately clear, but prolonged strikes could shake the economy as France fights inflation and tries to boost growth.
Police unions opposed to pension reforms also joined the protests, while officers tried to quell isolated riots.
Most train services across France have been suspended, including some international services, and around 20% of flights from Paris Orly Airport have been cancelled.
The education ministry said more than a third of teachers were on strike, and national electricity company EDF said power was cut significantly on Thursday amid the strikes.
The Palace of Versailles was closed on Thursday while the Eiffel Tower warned of potential disruptions and the Louvre Museum closed some exhibition spaces.
Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the far left CGT union, urged Macron to “listen to the street”.
Laurent Berger, leader of the more moderate CFDT union, called the reform “unfair” and said Thursday’s opposition was a red flag.
Many French workers expressed mixed feelings about the government’s plan, citing the complexity of the pension system.
Quentin Coelho, 27, a Red Cross worker, felt he had to work Thursday even though he understood “most of the strikers’ demands”. Coelho said he fears the government will raise the retirement age further, so he’s already saving money for his retirement.
Others fear the reform will hit low-income workers, who live shorter lives than the rich, harder.
“It’s a societal problem. Do you want to retire sick, broken and even dead? Or do you want to enjoy life?” asked Fabien Villedieu, a 45-year-old railway worker,
French Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt acknowledged “concerns” raised by the pension plans but said the government is rejecting other options that include raising taxes – which he says would hurt the economy and cost jobs – or cutting pensions would.
The French government will officially present the pension law on Monday and will enter parliament next month. Their success will depend in part on the scale and duration of the strikes and protests.
Most opposition parties, including those on the left and the extreme right, are firmly opposed to the plan. Macron’s centrist alliance lost its parliamentary majority last year but still has the largest faction in the National Assembly, where it hopes to ally with the conservative Republican Party to approve pension reform.
Under the proposed changes, workers must have worked for at least 43 years to be eligible for a full pension. For those who do not meet this condition, such as many women who have interrupted their careers to raise children or those who have studied for a long time and entered the workforce late, the retirement age would remain unchanged at 67.
People who started working under the age of 20 and workers with serious health problems would be eligible for early retirement.
Protracted strikes met Macron’s latest attempt to raise the retirement age in 2019. He eventually retired after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Retirement regulations vary greatly from country to country, making direct comparisons difficult. The official retirement age in the US is now 67, and countries across Europe have raised the retirement age as populations age and birth rates fall.
However, opponents of Macron’s reform note that already in the French system people have to work more years overall than in some neighboring countries to receive a full pension. The plan is also seen by many as jeopardizing the welfare state, which is central to French society.
Alexander Turnbull, Oleg Cetinic and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.