Workers took to the streets across France on Thursday to protest the government’s plans to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62, in what marked the first major wave of protests since French President Emmanuel Macron won re-election last year.
France’s main trade unions came out in force against the government’s pension reform that would increase the number of years of contributions needed for a full pension to 43 years starting 2027. Tens of thousands of hospital workers and school teachers walked off the job, and the strikes caused massive disruption to public transportation as most trains were canceled across the country.
The epicenter of the protests in Paris is the Place de la République, the hub of all of France’s major protests, where huge crowds gathered on a cold afternoon to join a procession organized by the trade unions.
“When people are 60, they already can’t take it anymore,” said Jerome B., 48 years old, who works as an electricity technician for Paris’ airports, often on night shifts. “The pensions system is not in deficit. There are other ways to find money. €10 billion are easy to find, there are a lot of millionaires,” he said, suggesting that the rich should be taxed more.
Official predictions show that the finances of France’s state pensions system are balanced in the short term but will go into the red in the long term.
Strike action also hit TotalEnergies fuel refineries and energy giant EDF, causing a reduction in energy production.
Mathieu, 35 years old, is among those to go on strike at TotalEnergies. “Working two years more in these conditions simply isn’t feasible. These are physical professions,” he said, arguing that “those who defend these reforms keep their bums warm in offices.”
Last year, strikes at TotalEnergies refineries on salary negotiations caused severe fuel shortages across France and proved to be a strong means of putting pressure on the government. “Our goal is not that people have no fuel, but it is not to work two years more,” said Matthieu, who is affiliated with the powerful left-wing CGT union.
Trade unions signaled Thursday that Macron may be facing a protracted fight on the issue as they are ready to call new strikes if the government doesn’t change its plans. “If there is no positive response from the government, today is a first step, and there will be a second step,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT labor union, told reporters before the march in Paris.
The fight over pensions is one of the biggest tests for Macron in his second term. During his presidential campaign, he vowed to reform France’s state pensions system and bring it in line with European neighbors such as Spain and Germany where the retirement age is 65 to 67 years old.
Tens of thousands also took to the streets in other parts of France, including in the south. One of Macron’s main opponents, the leader of the left-wing France Unbowed movement Jean-Luc Mélenchon, took part in a demonstration in Marseille. “The government already lost a battle,” Mélenchon said.