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France: National pension protests test Macron presidency

January 19, 2023

Angry workers unions have mobilized across France to protest President Emmanuel Macron's second attempt at pension reform.

Protestors in Paris
Organizers said hundreds of thousands were present for the Paris marchImage: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images

Over 1 million people took to the streets across France on Thursday to protest President Emmanuel Macron's proposed pension reforms, which will make the nation's aging population work for longer before they see retirement benefits.

At least 80,000 marched in Paris alone, police said, though labor organizers put the numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Sporadic clashes broke out near the Bastille area of the capital, when police fired tear gas at demonstrators throwing bottles and smoke grenades.

About 30 members of a far-left group called the "Black Bloc," were arrested in Paris, but no violence was reported in the dozens of other demonstrations across the country.

Angry French workers also halted high-speed trains and disrupted electricity supplies in several parts of the country. The majority of the day's long-distance train journeys were cancelled.

Only 20% of flights from Paris' Orly Airport were cancelled with warnings of delays.

Some 40% of primary school teachers and 30% of secondary school teachers also walked off the job.

What Macron and the unions say about the pension policy

Speaking while on a visit to Spain, Macron said the reform at the center of the protest was "democratically proposed and approved" and "above all fair and responsible."

The state argues the reforms are the only way to keep the system solvent. The nominal minimum retirement age in France will rise to 64 from 62 as per the reforms. The country's retirement age structure is one of the most generous among EU member states.

Unions argue that the move threatens worker rights. Instead, they propose a tax on the wealthy or higher payroll contributions from employers to the pension system.

Older employees have also complained that politicians are out of touch with the reality of their working lives.

Unions have called for another mass strike on January 31.

What do we know about the proposed pension reforms?

All polls conducted suggest that most French citizens oppose the reform.

The bill is a major test for Macron. Previous governments, of various parties, have tried to pass reforms to keep the pension system afloat, when faced with France's notorious unions.

Macron's government first unveiled details of the proposed reform in during his first term in office, but abandoned it amid public protests and the onset of the COVID pandemic. He pledged to try again when campaigning for re-election in 2022.

On Monday, Macron will formally pesent the bill which is expected to proceed to the Parliament next month. 

kb,mk/ar (AP, AFP)