French workers ready for long strike to fight pension change

PARIS — Large swathes of France’s workforce, spanning generations, will go on strike Thursday to protest the government’s planned overhaul of the pension system.

Gathering in Paris, they want to vent their anger at the reform proposals that President Emmanuel Macron thinks are necessary to make the pension system financially sustainable.

Vincent Le Faucheur, 23, will be marching side-by-side with his uncle, 41-year-old Gilles Pierre. Both work on France’s railways and both are ready for an “unlimited strike” that could potentially paralyze the economy nationwide for days, even weeks.

“The older ones have fought for us. It’s normal we fight for ourselves and for the future generations,” said Le Faucheur, who joined the national railway company SNCF three years ago as a train traffic controller.

“Yes, it will be difficult, but if we need to do it, we will.”

Both are still years away from having to live off a pension, but Le Faucheur wants to show solidarity with his uncle, who has been a metro driver for the Paris public transport company RATP for 11 years.

They want the government to abandon its plans.

Under the current system, both have a special pension linked to their job and company, allowing Le Faucheur to retire at a minimum age of 57 and his uncle at 52.

With the proposal, Macron’s government wants to apply one set of rules to all new pensioners. It would replace the current 42 pension regimes that apply to various professions and can include specific provisions, like early retirement for train workers. All French retirees receive a state pension. The overall legal retirement age is 62.

The industrial action illustrates the mounting fears across generations that people will have to work longer for less.

Thursday’s strikes are expected to snarl transport, with trains remaining in their depots and flights delayed or cancelled. Thousands of schools will be closed, and garbage may not be collected as many workers, mostly from the public sector, have joined the movement.

Some public hospital workers will go to the Paris march and police unions are calling for a symbolic protest, too.

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Both Pierre and Le Faucheur concede that their current pension arrangements are favorable, but they argue that it’s fair compensation for the many constraints that go with their jobs, like working on weekends and holidays.

Pierre, a member of the left-wing Solidaires union, feels very attached to France’s history of social rights.

“The five weeks of paid vacation, the social security, we got all that through social struggles from people who sacrificed themselves financially for us to get that,” he said.

Retiring later, he said, likely means retiring with health problems.

“What do we want for our retirement years? To enjoy it or being a retiree in a hospital or in a bed and not being able to enjoy life?”

The upcoming strikes are the latest in a long line of protests since Macron came to power in 2017. Most center on changes to the labor market, which Macron insisted during his election were necessary for France to become a more dynamic economy.

The worry for Macron’s government is that the strikes could re-ignite the yellow vest protests, which erupted in November 2018 and quickly turned into a broader movement for more economic and social justice and were against Macron’s policies seen as favoring the rich.

Pierre feels a sense of solidarity with the yellow vests, some of whom are expected to join the protests.

“There’s a growing social gap between the poorest and the richest,” he said. “There are more and more retirees who can’t make it at the end of the month.”

French political scientist Dominique Andolfatto said the planned reforms concern everyone and that the government has not communicated its intentions clearly. Details on the pensions won’t be known until the bill is presented next year.

As a result, he said the planned reforms have “created anxiety within the population.”

Le Faucheur and Pierre say they understand the hurdles they face.

“I have concerns because I know this reform for Macron is the priority of his term”, Pierre said. “But on the other hand, I think that the French now are aware we need to join together in solidarity.”

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