Details of sweeping pension reforms fuel French anger

Major disruption across France is set to continue, but strikers seem to have support from the wider public.

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    Members of police unions join demonstrations against planned pension reforms in Paris [Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA-EFE]
    Members of police unions join demonstrations against planned pension reforms in Paris [Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA-EFE]

    Paris, France - Labour unions on Wednesday said they would extend strikes that have already paralysed much of France's transport network for nearly a week, after Prime Minister Edouard Philippe revealed details of the government's highly controversial plan to overhaul the French pension system. 

    "The government is making a fool of everyone," said Philippe Martinez, the leader of the hardline CGT Union. "Everyone will work longer; it is unacceptable."

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    After much anticipation, Philippe unveiled the full details of the plan in a speech at the Economic, Social and Environmental Council on Wednesday afternoon. He said the legal retirement age would remain at 62 years, but workers would need to work until 64 in order to receive their full pension.

    As anticipated, Philippe also said 42 special programmes would be scrapped and consolidated into one universal, points-based system. But in a concession, the overhaul would only apply to those born after 1975, as opposed to 1963 as previously stated.

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    "We've decided to change nothing for those who have already contributed towards their retirement for at least 17 years, which means for those under the general retirement regime - those born before 1975 and who will be over 50 in 2025," Philippe said.

    Philippe promised a guaranteed minimum monthly pension of 1,000 euros ($1,100) for those that had contributed to the pension pot for at least 42 years, and said the full overhaul would only apply to those born in 2004 or later.

    The vast majority of labour unions immediately rejected the details of the plan - including unions that had originally sided with the idea of pension reforms.

    "There was a red line with this reform, and that red line has clearly been crossed," said Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT, the only major union that had originally supported the idea of a universal points-based pension system.

    Philippe, meanwhile, said he was open to talks with the labour unions to go over the details of the new scheme. "My door is open and my hand is outstretched," he said.

    Major travel disruptions across the country continued on Wednesday as strikes entered a seventh day, with unions now calling for more protests on the December 17. A demonstration on Tuesday saw more than 339,000 across the country taking part, after more than 800,000 turned out for the first day on December 6.

    Some have called for the strikes to continue until Christmas. In Paris, morning rush hour traffic was backed up in 300 miles (475km) of gridlocked roads, with 10 out of 16 Metro lines shut. Many people were again encouraged to work from home where possible.

    "It's taken me more than two hours to get to school every day," Anthony Bardin, a 19-year-old nursing student, told Al Jazeera as he waited to catch a bus at the Place de la Republique.

    Bardin, who lives in the Paris suburbs, said he was frustrated by the disruptions but that he would continue to support those are striking. 

    They're striking for the rest of us to defend all our livelihoods. It's not just about salaries or pensions - but about equality and fairness."

    Francois Esmyot, private sector worker

    Support for demonstrators

    Even with the disruptions, support for the protests has been strong, with an Ifop poll published on Sunday showing more than half of French citizens siding with those striking against the reform.

    "The strikers are not striking on a whim," Francois Esmyot, a 34-year-old who works in the private sector, told Al Jazeera. "They're striking because they feel their livelihoods are at stake ... they're striking for the rest of us to defend all our livelihoods. It's not just about salaries or pensions - but about equality and fairness."

    The demonstrators - which, in addition to transport workers, also include teachers, hospital workers, lawyers and police - oppose the plans for a pension system calculated based on the number of years worked. Union leaders argue the new system would leave public sector workers sidelined with significantly smaller pensions and force them to retire at a later age.

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    "Everyone is threatened by this reform," Thierry Amouroux, a spokesperson for the Union of Professional Nurses (SNPI), told Al Jazeera. "It's going to hurt the pension of every single French citizen."

    Amouroux also criticised the idea of giving more benefits to those stay in the workforce until the age of 64, in lieu of the official retirement age of 62: "[The government] is basically telling workers that they're going to have to work longer and that they'll retire with a poor pension."

    According to a YouGov poll taken just before the start of the protests, more than 70 percent of French citizens said they were worried about the future of their pensions.

    Under the current system, private sector pensions are calculated based on a worker's top 25 earning years. In the public sector, those benefits are calculated based on an employee's salary in their final six months of work. In most cases, full benefits can be earned after 41 to 43 years of work, though some workers - including rail workers and ballerinas - can retire earlier, given the arduous nature of their work.

    If he succeeds in overhauling the current system, French President Emmanuel Macron would be the first to do so since the pension scheme was introduced at the end of the second world war. 

    Distaste for Macron

    Pundits cite the overhaul as Macron's biggest challenge since the start of his presidency in May 2017 - even more so than the Yellow Vest movement that started just over a year ago. Today, France spends 14 percent of its gross domestic product on its pension system, the highest among OECD countries. The government also says the system could face a deficit of 17 billion euros ($19bn) by 2025 if nothing is done to change it.

    It's having a negative effect right now, but I think I'll be thankful for everything [the strikers] are doing come 30 years from now when it’s time for me to retire

    Romain Busset, shop-owner

    Still, Macron's critics argue the majority of his plans to date only stand to favour the wealthy.

    "No-one believes this government when they talk about equality," Xavier Vigna, a French historian who follows social movements in France, told Al Jazeera. "People have this feeling that this government serves only the richest people, which is why this latest strike against the pension reform has seen such strong support from the middle and working class."

    With strikes continuing, some Parisians said they were getting used to the longer daily commute. Romain Busset, who manages a bookshop in the 11th arrondissement, said he wasn't too bothered by the hour-long walk it took him to get to work. "It's not so bad, and it's only temporary," he told Al Jazeera.

    The 36-year-old said he was in strong support of the strikes, even if they were having a small impact on the shop's sales:

    "It's having a negative effect right now, but I think I'll be thankful for everything [the strikers] are doing come 30 years from now when it’s time for me to retire."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News