French govt unveils pension plan details

PARIS (AFP) -The French government unveiled the details of a pension reform plan yesterday that has already seen workers down tools in anticipation, crippling transport for a week as hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest.

A speedy resolution appears unlikely, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe warning on Tuesday – the sixth day of an open-ended transport strike – of a lengthy battle ahead as unions vowed not to yield.

The industrial action has paralysed public transport in Paris and disrupted national rail services and grounded many planes.

It is the biggest show of union force since French President Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017 vowing to cut public spending and make the economy more competitive.

On Tuesday, 339,000 people took part in a second day of demonstrations over government plans to merge the country’s 42 pension schemes into one, according to Interior Ministry estimates.

Protesters march during a mass strike in Marseille, southern France. PHOTO: AP

The numbers, which unions claimed were far greater, were markedly down from the first day of the strike on December 5, when more than 800,000 people took to the streets.

Philippe announced the details of the pensions overhaul at noon.

Some suggestions are already in the public domain.

Jean-Paul Delevoye, whom Macron entrusted with leading the reform project, angered unions by suggesting scrapping the more advantageous pension provisions enjoyed by some professions – including public transport and utilities workers, sailors, notaries, and Paris Opera performers.

The government said the overhaul will make the retirement system fairer.

On Tuesday, the premier cautioned there would be “no magic announcements” to bring the protests to a sudden halt.

But he sought to reassure workers in sectors which enjoy earlier retirement or more generous pensions that the changes would be gradual.

Those opposing the reform accuse former investment banker Macron of trying to roll back France’s costly but highly cherished welfare state.

The official retirement age in France is 62 – one of the lowest among developed countries, and fiercely defended by the labour force.

France’s famously militant unions have sounded an uncompromising note, insisting they will not call off the strike unless the reform is scrapped outright.

The action has revived memories of three-week-long strikes over pension reform that crippled France in 1995, forcing the centre-right government of the day to reverse course. Teachers joined the industrial action on Tuesday for the second time in a week, closing many schools.

Julien Sergere, a 38-year-old teacher who marched in Paris, told AFP he was worried that a proposal to standardise the way pensions are calculated would leave teachers poorer.

“Our wages are low and until now the advantage we had was that our pensions were calculated on the basis of the last six months of our career, which compensated a bit.

“But today, they’re talking about (basing calculations on) the last 25 years, which could make our pensions fall by between EUR500 and EUR 900 euros a month on average,” he said.

Disgruntled hospital workers, firefighters, students and “yellow vest” anti-government protesters also took part in Tuesday’s rallies, reflecting the broad level of dissatisfaction with Macron’s policies halfway through his mandate. Striking workers blocked seven of France’s eight petrol refineries on Tuesday, but the government said there had been no impact on petrol supplies.

Public transport in the capital remained at a near standstill, causing much frustration for working commuters and tourists alike. Yesterday, 10 out of Paris’ 16 metro lines were offline, four ran reduced services, and the only two driverless lines functioned as usual though with a high risk of congestion, according to operator RATP.