Railway Pension Strikes Becoming the Longest in French History

(CN) — Nationwide strikes against French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to overhaul France’s pension system will enter the New Year and become France’s longest-running rail strike in the country’s history.

French President Emmanuel Macron. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

On Tuesday, Macron was preparing to deliver a televised yearend message in which he was expected to reaffirm his commitment to overhauling France’s complicated pension system but also say he is willing to negotiate.

Standing in front of a window in the Élysée Palace, Macron said “pension reform will be completed” and that he would not give in to “pessimists and inaction.” He said he understood people’s fears about the reforms, but he also said lies had been spread about their effect.

He called the overhaul “a project in social justice and progress” because every worker would be treated more fairly under a system where every earned euro is treated the same in calculating retirements. He added that the government would find “a way to a swift compromise.”

Until now, Macron has left Prime Minister Éduoard Philippe to carry out negotiations with trade unions and take front stage in the reforms efforts. But Macron is the force behind the reforms and made it central to his 2017 election win.

His political rivals on the left and right dismissed Macron’s address as more of the same from a president they like to portray as out of touch. Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of National Rally, tweeted: “Once again … nothing.” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left leader of France Unbowed, likened Macron’s words to a “declaration of war against the millions of French people who are rejecting these reforms.”

The strike has hit France’s public transportation system hard, with numerous trains, buses and subway trains in Paris at a standstill. There have been other strikes too, most memorably that of ballerinas with the Paris Opéra who performed a part of “Swan Lake” outside the Palais Garnier opera house Christmas Eve as part of their protest.

The strikes are a major challenge to Macron, who made overhauling France’s multitiered pension system a campaign pledge. He wants to introduce a universal pension system based around a points system and raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64.

The changes to France’s 42 retirement schemes threaten to hurt some public sector workers, such as teachers and railway workers, but put more money in the pockets of others, including those who are self-employed and employed on a temporary basis.

The strikes are a continuation of backlash against Macron and his ambitious reforms, widely seen as favoring business. At the end of 2018, the president used his yearend message to strike a tough tone and quell the “yellow vest” uprising, which began as a nationwide protest of gas tax hikes and morphed into a wide-scale protest against Macron. He ended up offering concessions and holding nationwide talks to calm the public anger.

The strikes over pension reform entered their 27th day Tuesday, but the number of workers involved has fallen greatly since the start of the nationwide strike on Dec. 5, when more than 1 million people protested.

On Thursday, railway workers are expected to strike for the 29th day in a row, which will make it the longest railway strike in French history. Railway workers went on strike for 28 days in 1986 and 1987 over wages and working conditions. Today’s strikes also are longer than a similar nationwide strike in December 1995 that was fought over pensions and ended with then-President Jacques Chirac backing down on reforms. If the strikes continue beyond Jan. 6, they will exceed the historic strikes of May 1968.

Although these strikes have seen clashes between protesters and police, and have been marked by heated passions and anger, they have not brought France to the brink, as in previous periods of tumult.

“The country is far from being paralyzed as it was in 1995 and 1968,” said John Lichfield, a Paris-based veteran journalist, on Twitter. “Even the railways haven’t been halted as they were in 1986.”

He noted that only a tiny fraction (less than 1%) of France’s 5.8 million public workers are on strike and that private-sector workers are not participating in the strikes.

“Pressure on Macron to concede is much less than it was on Chirac in 1995,” Lichfield said. “[Macron’s] government is picking off different trades with special deals. The whole idea was to merge 42 state pension systems into one. Likely outcome is one system with 42 exceptions.”

In the coming days, though, the strikes are expected to intensify, as the government and trade unions begin a new round of talks on Jan. 7 after the holidays. Trade unions are calling for another day of action on Jan. 9.

Philippe Martinez, the leader of the hard-line left-wing General Confederation of Labor, or CGT, is calling on workers to bring eight oil refineries to a standstill between Jan. 7-10.

Writing in the weekly newspaper Journal du Dimanche, Martinez called on Macron to “admit that he was wrong” and scrap his pension overhaul.

“He had said that he had changed, that he was ready to ‘listen,’” Martinez said, and compared Macron to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who held tough against a miners’ strike in 1985.

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

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