France is bracing for widespread chaos as unions and protesters call for a “Black Thursday” general strike this week against the government’s pension changes.
The day of action will be the first major test of the public’s resolve to force President Emmanuel Macron to back down over plans to raise the official retirement age and his minority government’s determination to oppose them. Union leaders called for “mass mobilization”.
Three-quarters of teachers are expected to strike, closing schools, and work stoppages will disrupt transport and health services. Most trains will not run, the Paris Metro has said its services will be greatly disrupted, and flights are said to be cancelled. Strikes are announced by truck drivers, couriers and delivery people. Oil refinery workers are also suspending their work.
Staff at many theatres, music venues and banks are expected to join the action as police prepare for protesters to take to the streets across the country.
A recent poll showed that the French public accepts that changes to the pension system are necessary, but not those proposed by the government. In particular, he opposes Macron’s plans to raise the official retirement age from 62 to 64 and to force workers to pay into the pension system for longer. An Ifop poll for France’s main weekly newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, found that 68 percent of respondents were hostile to the government’s measures.
Unions have overcome their often antagonistic relationship to find common ground, uniting for the first time in 12 years. Union leaders said Thursday would be the “first day of mobilization” in their fight to scrap the pension plans. They demand that the measures be withdrawn immediately, describing them as “unfair and unnecessary”.
Philippe Martínez, head of the CGT union, said he hoped “several million people” would strike and demonstrate. “This is the first day. And when we say that, we think there will be others … everywhere if possible,” he told the France 2 television channel.
Under a 2007 law, transport workers are required to maintain a minimum service, but passengers are warned that this is not guaranteed. The transport secretary, Clement Bohn, said people should prepare for a “tough day” and suggested working from home rather than struggling to get to the office.
Intercity trains are expected to be hardest hit, with warnings that none will run on Thursday. One in 10 regional trains and between one-third and one-fifth of TGVs are expected to run. Eurostar and Talis are expected to operate as normal, but Liria services to Italy will be severely disrupted.
The government, which lost its majority in last June’s general election, insists it will not back down and is asking workers not to paralyze the country. The conservative Les Republicains party will be counted on to help push the measure through parliament. As a backup, the government said it would use a constitutional measure known as 49:3 to pass the law without a parliamentary debate or vote.
Successive French presidents have tried but failed to overhaul the pension system and raise the retirement age. Macron made it part of his 2017 election campaign and took the first step two years later, sparking protests and transport strikes. The changes were delayed when the Covid pandemic hit, but they were not abandoned. During his re-election campaign last year, Macron again promised to overhaul the pension system, insisting the measures were necessary to “save” it from deficits.
In 1995, then-President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, attempted to introduce a universal system and end the many different “special regimes” enjoyed by public sector workers. Two million people took to the streets in almost a month of protests and the changes were abandoned.
In 2010, another conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy, raised the retirement age from 60 to 62, with a full pension for those who worked at least 41.5 years, but only after a week of strikes, blockades of oil refineries and nationwide protests . .
Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, promised to tackle the deficit in the pension system but ultimately avoided major changes after tens of thousands of people protested in Paris. He passed legislation that gradually increased the number of years of work required to receive a full pension – to 43 by 2035 – which was mitigated by allowing those with physically demanding jobs to retire earlier.