(CN) – French President Emmanuel Macron is facing a major test to his presidency as France was beset Thursday by massive strikes that could turn into days of angry protests over his government’s plans to overhaul pensions.
A cross-section of French society went on strike Thursday, including police officers, transportation workers, nurses, postal workers, teachers and lawyers. The strike brought Paris and other cities to a standstill as trains, subways and airplanes came to a halt. Many schools across France were closed, as was the Eiffel Tower.
The strikes and protests were mostly peaceful, but police and protesters clashed in Paris and elsewhere. Police used tear gas against small groups of masked activists who set fires, threw objects and smashed bus shelters and store windows. Skirmishes also broke out in the western French city of Nantes.
The country’s powerful trade unions are calling on workers to keep pressure on the government until at least next week when it is set to hold talks with workers and begin outlining its proposals in detail.
In 2017, Macron entered the Elysee Palace on a promise to bring dozens of pension regimes under a single system. Macron is an ambitious president who’s sought to succeed where others have failed, but his pro-market reforms have also outraged many French and set off months of protests a year ago, seriously damaging his popularity.
Thursday’s general strike has the potential to morph into weeks of unrest and reignite the Yellow Vest protest movement, which began in November 2018 as a nationwide demonstration against a fuel tax and ended bringing Paris to its knees for weeks as protesters and police clashed.
Thursday’s action also echoed a massive three-week-long in November and December 1995 by public sector workers against pension reforms. That massive strike forced Prime Minister Alain Juppe to back down and nix his plans.
France, like other European countries, is struggling with the growing cost of pensions as its population ages at a time of slow economic growth. Across Europe, countries have had to rein in generous pension commitments made during more prosperous times in the post-war years.
The Le Monde newspaper called the new protests “the hour of truth” for Macron. The newspaper said the success of his presidency – built on an image of him as the only politician capable of transforming France – was at stake.
Macron did not immediately react to the strike. A top presidential official said the president was “calm and determined” to push his reforms through, according to the Associated Press.
“What I find puzzling is that Macron is not under pressure to do this,” said Giuliano Bonoli, a professor of social policy who studies welfare programs at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News.
He said previous changes to France’s pension system – most notably raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 – have reined in costs. He said France is under no pressure by financial markets or the European Union to overhaul its pensions.
Bonoli said it appeared counter-intuitive for Macron, who already faces so much resistance, to push ahead with the overhaul.
“I think it will be difficult to get this through” because of the opposition to it, he said. “Maybe he is prepared to make some concessions.”
Bonoli said the changes under consideration, if passed, would be more far-reaching than previous reforms. He called the proposal to unify France’s 40-plus pension systems into one system sensible.
“The French system is very fragmented,” Bonoli said.
Those employed in the private sector pay into a single system while workers in the public sector have their own retirement systems. For instance, railway workers and those employed by the metro system in Paris have separate systems that allow them to retire in their 50s. Some public workers also get much higher pensions than others in the private sector. Macron is proposing that everyone pay into a single system similar to Social Security.
“There are going to be winners and losers and there will be more uncertainty,” Bonoli said about the proposed changes. The losers, he said, would be those in the public sector, such as railway workers and teachers.
The changes also envision determining a person’s pension based on a points system. But the value of the points would be determined by the government and, trade unions fear, in the future the government might lower the value of the points, Bonoli said.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)