France strikes and protests over pension changes heat up as Macron defends his controversial reforms
Paris — Strikes and protests across France caused transport chaos Thursday, as people furious over President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms continued strikes and took to the streets to show their anger. Disruptions were particularly bad at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, but regional and commuter trains and subway systems were also hit as videos on social media showed un-emptied dumpsters set alight and police firing tear gas to control crowds.
An estimated 20% of teachers in the country went on strike Thursday and some 400 high schools were blockaded by students. Protests were planned in about 240 towns and cities across France.
Macron, in one of his first public interviews about the unpopular pension reforms after weeks of unrest sparked by them, said Wednesday that he was standing by his plan for the changes to begin rolling out next September. Those reforms will see the retirement age in France raised from 62 to 64.
The president said if it came down to a choice between his popularity and finding a solution for the country, he’d accept being unpopular. That’s good, because polls released Thursday showed about 65% of the French people saying he’s a bad president. Only 30% found his defense of the reforms convincing.
There was criticism of his attitude during the Wednesday interview, with many finding him arrogant. The president said his one error throughout the fierce national debate was failing to convince people of the need for the reforms, but he also said people wouldn’t hear him.
He criticized the violence that’s marred some of the protests, even comparing it to what happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 last year — a comparison that shocked people who were quick to point out that the damage was not to institutions of the state, but to piles of trash left by striking workers and a few torched cars.
Macron has long said the reforms were necessary to ensure today’s young French nationals have a pension when they retire. But many workers say he could pay for that by taxing the ultra-rich instead.
It’s not just about the retirement age. The reforms mean that people will now have to work 44 years before they get a full pension. That’s fine if you started working at 20, but anyone who went on to higher education is effectively penalized, along with anyone who took time off work to look after children.
That aspect of the reforms disproportionately impacts French women, who had been promised improvements with these changes. By having to work longer if they start their careers later, it means many will continue to be worse off than men.
Against the backdrop of the protests and travel chaos, King Charles III was to arrive in France Sunday for his first foreign visit as Britain’s monarch, and there are concerns about how his movements might be affected. There are also security concerns, as French police have been working flat out on the protests for weeks, with many having vacations cancelled.
Labor unions say they’re prepared to keep the protests and strikes going until the reforms are scrapped, but it’s clear the government will not bend.
The bill is now with the Constitutional Council, which ensures that the language and terms of the legislation are legal under the nation’s national charter.
They have just one month to either pass it or send it back to parliament, so many expect the unions to keep pushing at least until that final step is taken. Some far-left groups have said they’ll keep going for as long as it takes.