French government unveils new pension plan but crippling strikes set to continue

A protest in Paris against French President Emmanuel Macron's plans to reform the country's pension system, known in France as "retraites".
A protest in Paris against French President Emmanuel Macron's plans to reform the country's pension system, known in France as "retraites". Eric Gaillard, REUTERS

The legal retirement age in France will remain 62 with the new French retirement plan, but workers will need to work until 64 to get a full pension, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced on Wednesday.


“We’ll maintain the legal retirement age of 62,” Philippe said, adding, “but we’ll encourage [the French] to work longer. The government intends to adopt the proposal of the high commissioner Jean-Paul Delevoye to introduce, above the legal age, an ‘age of equilibrium’ with a system of discounts and bonuses.”

In a speech at the Economic, Social and Environmental Council in Paris, on the seventh day of crippling countrywide strikes and protests, Philippe declared “the time has come to build a universal retirement system”.

He emphasised some of the concessions agreed to by the government, including that the overhaul would not apply to those born before 1975 (as opposed to 1963, as had been previously stated). 

“We’ve decided to change nothing for those who have already contributed toward their retirement for at least 17 years, which means for those under the general retirement regime – those born before 1975 and who will be over 50 in 2025,” Philippe said.

The overhaul will apply fully only to those entering the labour force in 2022, also the final year of President Emmanuel Macron’s current term.

“We will guarantee a minimum pension of €1,000 a month” for those who have worked a full career (that is, just shy of 42 working years), Philippe added. 

The plan is part of Macron’s campaign promise to produce a simplified, universal system to replace the current 42 different pension schemes for various labour categories with a single, points-based system, while pushing the French to work longer before retirement.

Philippe sought to reassure workers in sectors that enjoy earlier retirement or more generous pensions that the changes would be gradual. The government's new universal pension system will cancel out special pension regimes, he said.

"The implementation of the new universal system will mean the end of specific regimes," Philippe continued, claiming that women would be the big winners of the new system. 

Women's organisations disagree, however, saying many stand to lose out under the new regime.  

>> French women may be the biggest losers under Macron’s pension reform plan

Public workers have been on strike for seven days against the reforms and unions have called for more protests on December 12 and December 17 following two mass demonstrations on Tuesday and last Thursday.

A speedy resolution of the stand-off appears unlikely, with Philippe warning Tuesday of a lengthy battle ahead as unions vowed not to yield.

‘Red line’ crossed

The rail workers’ largest union, the CGT, called for “stepping up the strikes” after the speech on Wednesday. 

“The government is taking everybody for fools,” the head of the CGT, Philippe Martinez, said in reaction to the prime minister’s remarks. “Everyone will work longer – it’s unacceptable.”

France’s moderate CFDT union also called on Wednesday for its members to join the strike, saying Macron had broken his promise not to change the age you can retire.

Shortly after Philippe’s speech, CFDT’s leader Laurent Berger said the government had crossed a “red line” with a proposal to incentivise people to delay their retirement.

“Despite the CFDT’s warnings, the prime minister has imposed unnecessary and unfair age measures,” the union said in a statement. The CFDT, France’s largest union federation, had until now maintained tentative support for the government’s pension reform push. Its call for members to join next Tuesday’s strike march marks the first such display of unity among France’s major unions since 2010.

Disruption continues

The industrial action has paralysed public transport in Paris and disrupted national rail services and grounded many planes.

It is the biggest show of union force since Macron came to power in 2017 vowing to cut public spending and make the economy more competitive.

On Tuesday, 339,000 people took part in a second day of demonstrations over government plans to merge the country's 42 pension schemes into one, according to interior ministry estimates.

The numbers, which unions claimed were far greater, were markedly down from the first day of the strike on December 5, when more than 800,000 people took to the streets.

The government has angered unions by promising to scrap the more advantageous pension provisions enjoyed by some professions – including public transport and utilities workers, sailors, notaries, and Paris Opéra performers.

Those opposing the reform accuse former investment banker Macron of trying to roll back France's costly but highly cherished welfare state.

France's official retirement age of 62 is one of the lowest among developed countries and fiercely defended by the labour force.

Petrol refineries blocked

France's most militant unions have sounded an uncompromising note, insisting they will not call off the strike unless the reform is scrapped outright, while others are demanding sweeping concessions.

The action has revived memories of three-week-long strikes over pension reform that crippled France in 1995, forcing the centre-right government of the day to reverse course.

Teachers joined the industrial action Tuesday for the second time in a week, closing many schools.

Julien Sergere, a 38-year-old teacher who marched in Paris, told AFP he was worried that a proposal to standardise the way pensions are calculated would leave teachers poorer.

"Our wages are low and until now the advantage we had was that our pensions were calculated on the basis of the last six months of our career, which compensated a bit.

"But today, they're talking about the last 25 years, which could make our pensions fall by between €500 and €900 ($550-1,100) a month on average," he said.

>> 'We won't give up': France's teachers ready for long protest against pension reform plan

Disgruntled hospital workers, firefighters, students and Yellow Vest anti-government protesters also took part in protests, reflecting the broad level of dissatisfaction with Macron's policies halfway through his mandate.

Striking workers blocked seven of France's eight petrol refineries Tuesday.

Public transport in the capital remained at a near standstill, causing much frustration for working commuters and tourists alike.

On Wednesday, 10 out of Paris's 16 métro lines will be offline, four will run reduced services, and the only two driverless lines (lines 1 and 14) will function as usual though with a high risk of overcrowding, according to operator RATP.

The head of commuter trains at SNCF, Alain Krakovitch, warned he expected the chaos to continue "until the end of the week", but some labour leaders have vowed to fight on until Christmas.

International trains will also be disrupted, the SNCF said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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