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Mass Strikes and Protests Sweep France After Attack on Pension System

Strikes are “just the beginning” if Macron doesn't abandon his attempt to hike the retirement age, a labor leader said.

Demonstrators march as they hold various banners in Paris, France, on January 19, 2023. Workers, employees and students hold a strike against the French president's plan to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64.

The streets of France filled with outraged workers on Thursday as rail employees, teachers, and others walked off the job to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s deeply unpopular plan to overhaul the nation’s pension system by raising the official retirement age from 62 to 64.

The union-led demonstrations — which ground significant portions of the country, including many schools and transportation systems, to a halt — come as Macron is attempting to steamroll far-reaching opposition to his pension overhaul, declaring that “we must work longer.”

Macron’s government formally presented its draft law last week, the first step in the process of enacting a reform that would force French citizens to work longer to qualify for a full pension.

“Today Is a First Step”

Philippe Martinez, the head of France’s General Confederation of Labor union, told reporters that Thursday’s strikes are just the beginning of widespread worker unrest if Macron doesn’t abandon his attempt to hike the retirement age by 2030.

“If there is no positive response from the government, today is a first step, and there will be a second step,” Martinez declared ahead of a march in Paris.

Eric Sellini, the union’s coordinator for the French petroleum company TotalEnergies, echoed that sentiment.

“For the moment, we’re sticking to our schedule,” Sellini said. “Depending on how the situation in the country evolves, and if employees don’t want to stop the strike, there could be an extension.”

Reuters reported Thursday that the mass protests “led to a substantial fall in electricity output and halted deliveries from refineries operated by TotalEnergies and Esso.”

“The CGT union expects that at least 70% of its refinery sector employees at TotalEnergies’ four refining sites have joined the strike in opposition to the government plan to raise the retirement age,” the outlet noted.

French unions also estimated that around 70% of the country’s primary schoolteachers were on strike Thursday.

Broadly Unpopular

A survey conducted earlier this month by the polling firm Elabe found that roughly three-fifths of the French public opposes Macron’s proposed pension overhaul, the latest iteration of a plan that the president has repeatedly put forth and subsequently delayed due to furious opposition.

“When he sought reelection last year amid an emboldened far right, Macron sent mixed messages on the issue,” The Washington Post reported. “After first announcing that he wanted to raise the minimum retirement age even higher than planned, from 62 to 65, he later backtracked and said that ’65 years is not a dogma.'”

“Time for Macron to Withdraw His Reform”

Opponents of the pension attack — including the leftist leader of the France Unbowed party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon — are pushing Macron to drop the proposal for good as mass protests signal sustained opposition from workers.

“It is time for Macron to withdraw his reform,” Mélenchon said Thursday.