French Back in Streets to Protest Pension Reforms, but Strikes Wane

Protesters march during a demonstration in Marseille, France, on Friday. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

(CN) – Tens of thousands of protesters returned to the streets in France on Friday to express their anger over proposals to overhaul the country’s pension system, but there are signs long-running strikes are waning.

This is the longest period of strikes by trade unions in France’s recent history. The strikes began on Dec. 5 and Friday marked the 51st day of action and the seventh day of mass protests.

But the drive behind the strikes may be weakening after French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe last week agreed to consider not raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. Raising the age of retirement was a major bone of contention for France’s largest trade union, the French Democratic Confederation of Labor.

Friday’s protests were led by hard-line, left-wing trade unions and coincided with a meeting of Philippe and cabinet ministers to adopt the proposed legislation.

The government wants to replace France’s system of 42 pension regimes with a single, points-based one. Philippe aims to get France’s parliament, the National Assembly, to pass legislation overhauling the system before summer. The National Assembly is expected to begin debates on the reforms on Feb. 17.

The strikes are led by the left-wing General Confederation of Labor, a union formerly affiliated with the Communist Party and known by its French initials CGT. It wants the pension overhaul to be scrapped, arguing that it will make workers poorer and work longer.

France’s pension system rewards many public workers with generous early retirement for physically and mentally demanding work. Among those who feel they stand to lose a lot under the proposed changes are teachers, train workers, sailors, miners and ballet dancers.

So far, the strikes have mostly affected trains and subways in Paris. Once again on Friday, many trains and subways were not running. But earlier this week Paris’ transportation system had returned mostly to normal, a sign these historic strikes may be running out of steam. The strikes have taken a financial toll on many workers. With large-scale strikes seeming to peter out, unions have begun to turn to wildcat actions, including power cuts.

For now, though, the CGT and other unions say they are determined to keep striking indefinitely.

“Our determination remains intact,” Yves Veyrier, head of the Force Ouvrière union, told reporters, according to France 24, a news broadcaster. “We have weeks, months, of protest ahead of us.”

Opposition to the reforms is strong throughout France with polls showing a majority of French calling on the government to withdraw the proposals.

But French President Emmanuel Macron has made pension reform a priority. Macron, a pro-business president and former investment banker, says his proposals will make France more competitive and business-friendly while also making pensions fairer.

Macron’s government says the changes are also necessary to make sure France’s pension system does not run up large deficits. Macron and his supporters have cited a government estimate that predicts France will face deficits of $8.7 billion to $18.9 billion by 2025 from pension payouts if nothing is done.

But this scenario — often touted by Macron’s government and the media — is just one of several forecast by an independent government council studying France’s retirement system, the Conseil d’Orientation des Retraites.

Under other scenarios, the council forecasts that pension deficits will actually shrink by more than $5 billion by 2030. In fact, the council has found that the cost of pensions has stabilized and it said its worst-case scenario was related to cuts the government has made to state-funded pension regimes — precisely those pension schemes now under attack.

Raising the age of retirement to 64 was meant to provide the cost savings the government says will be necessary to keep the pension system from running up deficits.

With that proposal off the table, Philippe has given union leaders and employers until the end of April to come up with new funding sources to keep the pensions system balanced by 2027 without cutting pensions or increasing labor costs. If an agreement cannot be reached, the government may seek once again to raise the age of retirement.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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