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Over 1 million protest Macron’s pension plan in the streets of France


President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the legal age of retirement is part of an attempt to balance the pension program’s budget by making the French work longer.


By ROGER COHEN and AURELIEN BREEDEN


More than 1 million protesters, chanting slogans like “retirement before arthritis,” took to the streets throughout France to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62.


Striking workers, from Calais in the north to Marseille in the south, closed schools, stopped many trains, disrupted the Paris Metro, lowered electricity output and curtailed flights, as France once again roused itself to resist tampering with its protective social model.


Macron, who is in the first year of his second and last term, wants to push through an overhaul of what he views as an untenable pension system. He sees this as a core part of his legacy. But in a country where work is viewed by many as a burden rather than an opportunity, and retirement as the panacea beyond it, his determination has ignited fierce resistance.


Labor unions, from the extreme left to the moderate center, united behind the protests, as did often splintered left-of-center political parties. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme-right National Rally party that has attracted growing support among the working class, also called for “an unjust reform” to be blocked.


In Paris, where the strikers’ march stretched over 2 1/2 miles, Corinne Arramy, a hospital worker, wore a sticker saying “We live longer and that’s for the best, not a reason to die at work.” Arramy, 56, said, “This is the start of something big,” a fight to preserve a hard-earned right.


Teachers, railway workers and employees at public radio stations joined more than 1 million protesters at more than 200 demonstrations across the country, according to the Interior Ministry. The CGT labor union put the number at over 2 million. On Thursday evening, the labor unions welcomed the day’s “powerful mobilization” and called for a new day of strikes and protests on Jan. 31.


Chants of “Metro, Work, Tomb” rose from the crowds in derisory dismissal of what is widely portrayed as a government attempt to squeeze the last of pleasure from life in a hypercompetitive world.


A long confrontation, involving further strikes, seems inevitable. For the French left, which has failed to reach even the runoff round of the last two presidential elections, defeating pension changes amounts to a critical test of its heft and ultimately of its eventual capacity to return to power.


For Macron, a centrist who tried and failed with a different pension overhaul in 2019 that also provoked massive protests, it is the crux of his attempt to give direction to a second term that has up to now seemed a time of drift. He has vowed, since his election campaign last year, to see the changes through.


The government believes the only way to balance the pension system is to make the French work longer. Workers and employers pay mandatory payroll taxes that are used to fund state pensions, but the ratio of workers to retirees has dropped sharply as life expectancy has increased. In 2000, there were 2.1 workers paying into the system for every one retiree, a number that fell to 1.7 in 2020.


“If you want the pact between generations to be just, this reform is essential, and so we will do it with respect, a spirit of dialogue, but also determination and responsibility,” Macron said during a visit on Thursday to Barcelona, Spain.


However, the government’s arithmetic is fiercely contested by labor leaders who argue that taxing the country’s millionaires and their dividends would be a more effective way to fund the current pension system. “Pensions are something sacred in France,” said Matthieu Jilard, 26, a student who joined the Paris protest.


Rising inflation has contributed to a restive mood in France, but at a deeper level the overhaul attempt reveals ingrained attitudes toward work, equated with drudgery, and retirement, equated with the freedom at last to enjoy life.


A recent survey by the IFOP polling and marketing company found that only 24% of French people considered work “very important,” compared with 60% in 1990. The feeling of being unrecognized or taken for granted in the workplace appears widespread.


France is something of an outlier on pensions among European countries, many of which have already pushed back retirement for the very reasons Macron has outlined. In Germany, the legal age of retirement is 65 and is being gradually increased to 67. Spain is also working toward retirement at 67.


But some countries allow workers to retire before the legal age, provided they have paid into the system long enough. Italy, for instance, has also set 67 as the legal age of retirement, but many leave their jobs earlier.


Still, in France workers generally leave the labor market two to three years earlier than in other major European economies, according to an official advisory body called the Pensions Advisory Council.


The overhaul would raise the legal age of retirement in annual three-month increments, starting this fall, to reach 64 by 2030, three years after Macron, who is subject to term limits, leaves office. Parliament will begin discussing the bill next month, and Macron hopes it will become law by the summer.


That target, however, appears ambitious.


“If there is no positive response from the government, today is a first step, and there will be a second step,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, told reporters before the march in Paris.

Police officers in riot gear deployed in large numbers, and many stores in Paris boarded up their windows. But violence appeared limited.


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