Proposed changes to France’s pension system have provoked fury throughout the country, bringing trains to a standstill, disrupting flights and closing schools, hospitals, and other public services as citizens vent their deep discontent.
More than 800,000 people demonstrated in nearly 70 cities and towns across France on Thursday, in one of the largest public sector strikes in decades. In Paris, 71 people had been arrested by 3.30pm. Teargas was used as the day wore on, reports emerged of violent clashes between protesters and police, especially near the Place de la Republique, and protesters marched well into the night.
The unrest is predicted to continue for days, some say weeks, and its scale and potency can be put down, at least in part, to the new level of coordination between two previously separate groups – the trade unions and the “yellow vests”, whose demonstrations have roiled France often for over a year.
Underground stations were closed, and the suburban train network ran very few services, meaning commuters took to bicycles and scooters to travel to and from work. On the street the atmosphere started off largely festive – until, later in the day, black-clad protesters began to set objects on fire, and throw bricks.
Reports circulated that many of the flare-ups involved “Black Bloc” anarchists, and other anarchist groups.
Why are they marching?
Transport workers, teachers, postal workers, firefighters, hospital staff, lawyers and students have been angered by changes to the pension system they believe will mean they work longer for less.
The reforms are designed to “streamline a byzantine system of 42 different pension plans that collectively are headed toward a $19 billion deficit,” reports The New York Times. Macron’s plan is to merge the different plans, private and public, into a single state-managed structure. Workers would accumulate points as their careers progressed, and then cash them in during retirement.
However, unions say most workers will lose money in the long run, and that, while the legal retirement age remains 62, “new financial conditions will encourage some people to work longer,” the Associated Press says.
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The protester’s ire is focused on the man they blame for what they consider an undermining of France’s welfare system – President Emanuel Macron.
“The row cuts to the heart of Macron’s presidential project and his pledge to deliver the biggest transformation of the French social model and welfare system since the postwar era,” says The Guardian. “Since his election in 2017, Macron has leaned towards a Nordic style of “flexi-security” in which the labour market is loosened and the focus is on changing from a rigid work code to a society of individuals moving between jobs.”
“It’s a question of life or death for the French social system, which Macron is dismantling,” said Isabelle Jarrivet, 52, who worked for 20 years as an administrator in a town hall north of Paris. “We’re being taken back to a time before 1945, where we risk losing the social safety net. Private pension funds are waiting in the wings to benefit. The gilets jaunes protests got people thinking and talking more about politics and people determined not to let things pass. You can feel a defiant mood in the air.”
Nevertheless, Macron remains resolute and unwavering. An anonymous senior aide at the Elysee Palace told reporters that the president was “calm and determined” in the face of the strikes. The president was “watchful that public order be respected, watchful as to the difficulties for French people, and watchful also that the right to strike is respected,” the official said.
His unbending stance has been a source of frustration for his opponents throughout the “yellow vest” protests.
“Either you listen, or you continue to be stubborn the way the president has been since he was elected,” said Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the General Confederation of Labour. “There is no reason to abandon a system that the whole world is envious of.”