At least 1.1 million people protested on the streets of Paris and other French cities last week. The demonstrations are in objection to plans for raising France’s retirement age. Still, President Emmanuel Macron insists he will press ahead with the proposed reforms.
French unions announced new strikes and protests for January 31. Union leaders vow to ask the government to back down on plans to raise the standard retirement age from 62 to 64. Macron says France needs the change to keep the country’s pension (retirement investment) system going. But unions say it threatens worker rights.
Macron acknowledges the public’s discontent. But he says “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 adds.
As Macron spoke, riot police pushed back against some protesters. The crowd threw projectiles on the sidelines of the largely peaceful Paris march. Some other minor incidents led officers to use tear gas.
Paris police say they detained 38 people as a mass thronged the streets of the capital. Retirees and college students joined the crowd.
In a country with an aging population and growing life expectancy—and where everyone receives a state pension—Macron’s government says the reform is the only way to keep the system working.
Unions have a different proposal: a tax on the wealthy or more payroll input from employers to finance the pension system.
Polls suggest most French people oppose the retirement reform. The strikes have severely disrupted transportation, schools, and other public services.
Last Thursday, the Interior Ministry said more than 1.1 million people protested, including 80,000 in Paris. Unions say more than two million people took part nationwide, and 400,000 in Paris.
Jean Paul Cachina, 56, is a human resources worker. He joined the march in Paris. “I am not here for myself,” he says. “I am here to defend the youth and workers doing demanding jobs. I work in the construction industry sector, and I’m a firsthand witness of the suffering of employees.”
Many young people joined the Paris crowd, including high school students.
Nathan Arsac, 19, says, “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen next. Losing our social achievements could happen so fast. I’m scared of the future when I’ll be older and have to retire.”
Sylvie Béchard, a 59-year-old nurse, says she joined the march because “we healthcare workers are physically exhausted.”
The economic cost of the strikes wasn’t immediately clear. But lengthy walkouts could hobble the French economy just as France is struggling against inflation and trying to boost growth. Trains, schools, and electricity went down. Even the famed Eiffel Tower took a hit.
Police unions opposed to the retirement reform also took part in the protests, while those on duty sought to contain scattered unrest.
Philippe Martinez, secretary general of a trade union, urged Macron to “listen to the street.”
The French government will formally present the pension bill today. Then it will head to Parliament next month. Success will depend in part on the scale and duration of the strikes and protests in the coming weeks.
(People gather during a demonstration against proposed pension changes on Thursday, January 19, 2023, in Paris. AP/Lewis Joly)