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Thousands protest as Macron’s government adopts pension reform plan

Protesters march in Marseille, France, on January 24, 2020, as part as a nationwide multi-sector strike against the French government's pensions overhaul.
Protesters march in Marseille, France, on January 24, 2020, as part as a nationwide multi-sector strike against the French government's pensions overhaul. © Christophe Simon, AFP

France’s hardleft trade unions on Friday threatened industrial action for months to come, as they searched for a way to force President Emmanuel Macron to ditch the biggest overhaul of the country’s pension system since World War II.

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After a brief respite from a seven-week strike that extended over the Christmas period, French unions called for major shutdowns and demonstrations on Friday to show their “determination” to halt Macron’s pension reform plan.

The call came as Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presented the new plan instituting a “universal system” of point-based pensions to the cabinet Friday, before it is sent to the National Assembly, France’s lower house, where debates will begin February 17.

The unions on Friday brought thousands of protesters into the streets for a seventh day of nationwide demonstrations, which took place as their large-scale protests have been petering out and they are increasingly resorting to wildcat actions to cause disruption.

“Our determination remains intact,” Yves Veyrier, head of the Force Ouvrière union, told reporters ahead of a street march in Paris. “We have weeks, months, of protest ahead of us.”

On Thursday evening, demonstrators held torch-lit protests in Paris ahead of a “Black Friday” of strikes and shutdowns.

Reforms needed to create flexible job market, says Macron

France’s hardline CGT union's leader, Philippe Martinez, warned that opposition to the pension reform “has not weakened” in an interview with the Public Sénat TV station, with polls showing that 61 percent of French people are calling for the reform to be withdrawn.

The CFE-CGC confederation of trade unions however declared it wanted to “take (a) break” after Friday’s mobilisation. “Our members are difficult to mobilise on a long-term basis, they have responsibilities and are not asking for economic activity to be too disrupted,” said senior CFE-CGC official Gérard Mardiné.

Macron wants to streamline the existing setup of 42 different pension schemes, each with their own levels of contributions and benefits, into a single system that gives every pensioner the same rights for each euro contributed.

The myriad special benefits deter job mobility, says Macron, for whom the reform is central to a drive to create a more flexible labour market.

'We Shall Overcome' say protesters

Trade union opponents say the reform will require people to work longer for a full pension.

"I still believe in our fight," said one protester in Paris who identified herself as Karine and carried a banner reading 'We Shall Overcome'.

Walkouts at power plants left electricity generation reduced by 6.4 percent of available capacity, according to grid operator data. Power demand is outstripping supply due to cold weather, leaving France a net importer of electricity from its neighbours.

French Prime Minister Philippe insists the pension reform must result in a balanced pension budget by 2027.

Under pressure from the unions, he has withdrawn a proposal to raise the retirement age for a full pension by two years to 64. But unions must now find another way to balance the pension books or the provision will be added back in before the bill is due to be voted into law this summer.

Friday is the 51st day of France’s longest strike in 40 years and unions hope there will be enough protesters in the streets to force the government to back down.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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