France on strike: Unions say 'non' to higher pension age

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PARIS (AP) — Demonstrators were marching across France on Tuesday in a new round of protests and strikes against the government's plan to raise the retirement age to 64, in what unions hope to be their biggest show of force against the proposal.

Garbage collectors, utility workers, train drivers and others have walked off the job on Tuesday across France to show their anger at the reform.

More than 250 protests were expected in Paris and around the country against President Emmanuel Macron’s showcase legislation. The bill is under debate in the French Senate this week.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Paris, Marseille, Nice and other cities, including Nantes and Lyon where some minor clashes with police broke out.

Laurent Berger, the secretary-general of the CFDT union, said that based on initial figures, the numbers of demonstrators nationwide are expected to be the biggest since the beginning of the movement in January.

Unions threatened to freeze up the French economy with work stoppages across multiple sectors, most visibly an open-ended strike at the SNCF national rail authority.

Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, said “the goal is that the government withdraw its draft reform. Full stop,” on news broadcaster FranceInfo.

Some unions have called for open-ended strikes in sectors from refineries and oil depots to electricity and gas facilities. Workers in each sector will decided locally in the evening about whether to prolong the movement, Martinez said.

All oil shipments in the country have been halted on Tuesday amid strikes at the refineries of TotalEnergies, Esso-ExxonMobil and Petroineos groups, according to the CGT.

Truckers have sporadically blocked major highway arteries and interchanges in go-slow actions near several cities in French regions.

In Paris, garbage collectors have started an open-ended strike and blocked on Tuesday morning the access to the incineration plant of Ivry-sur-Seine, south of the capital, Europe's biggest such facility.

“The job of a garbage collector is painful. We usually work very early or late ... 365 days per year. We usually have to carry heavy weight or stand up for hours to sweep,” said Regis Viecili, a 56-year-old garbage worker.

Some strikers said that such an intense rhythm has a negative impact on their daily life and that the job was so demanding that they often experienced tendinitis and aches. That's why they have a special pension plan. But with the planned changes, they would have to retire at 59 instead of 57.

“A lot of garbage workers die before the retirement age," Viceli said.

Figures from government statistics agency Insee showed that in the period 2009-2013, the latest period studied, the life expectancy of unskilled male workers was 6.4 years below the one of men in management positions — compared with 3.2 years of difference for female workers in each category.

A fifth of flights were canceled at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport and about a third of flights were scrapped at Orly Airport. Trains to Germany and Spain were expected to come to a halt, and those to and from Britain and Belgium will be reduced by a third, according to the SNCF rail authority.

Most high-speed trains and regional trains have been canceled.

Public transportation and other services were disrupted in most French cities. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower was closed, as the Palace of Versailles, west of the capital.

According to the education ministry, about one third of teachers were on strike nationwide.

The government encouraged people to work from home if their jobs allow.

At Paris-Nord train station, some unionists voted to continue the strike Wednesday.

“We are convinced that the government will step back only if we block the economy," said Xavier Bregail, a 40-year-old train driver in northern Paris. “We did strong demonstrations earlier, but it's time to take the movement one step further."

Bregail hoped the protests will turn into a broader movement against economic injustice.

“We often said we have to bring France to its knees but I think we should bring the world to its knees,” he said, citing nationwide strikes in Britain. “The subject behind this is inflation, soaring food and energy prices. I just want to live decently from my work.”

The reform would raise the minimum pension age from 62 to 64 and require 43 years of work by 2030 to earn a full pension, amid other measures. The government argues the system is expected to dive into deficit within a decade as France’s population ages and life expectancy lengthens.

Opinion polls suggest that most French voters oppose the bill.

At the Saint Lazare train station in Paris, Briki Mokrane, a 54-year-old fire safety worker, said “obviously it’s very very difficult for workers, but unfortunately in France it’s always the same: we have to have strikes or demonstrations to preserve our rights.”

Left-wing lawmakers say companies and the wealthy should pitch in more to finance the pension system.

France's eight main unions and five youth organizations will meet on Tuesday evening to decide about the next steps of the mobilization.


Angela Charlton in Paris, and Barbara Surk in Nice, contributed to this story.