By Caroline Pailliez
PARIS (Reuters) – France’s trade unions called for mass protests and strikes over pension reform that have brought much of the country to a halt to carry on next week, piling more pressure on President Emmanuel Macron.
Commuters faced severe disruption getting to work on Friday, hospitals have been left understaffed and Paris City Hall said dozens of schools in the capital would stay closed, as unions dug in over Macron’s plans to streamline one of the developed world’s most generous pension systems.
Transport workers went on strike on Thursday and took to the streets – joined by teachers, doctors, police, firemen and civil servants. Smoke and tear gas swirled through parts of Paris and Nantes as protests turned violent.
Union leaders said public workers should maintain their industrial action until Tuesday, when they urged members to flood the streets once again.
“Unions will meet on Tuesday evening to decide on our next actions if by then Macron and (Prime Minister) Edouard Philippe have not reversed course and opened negotiations,” Catherine Perret of the hard-left CGT union told reporters.
The strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who took office in 2017 on a promise of opening up France’s highly regulated economy, against powerful unions who say he is set on dismantling worker protections.
“We’re going to protest for a week at least, and at the end of that week it’s the government that’s going to back down,” said 50-year-old Paris transport employee Patrick Dos Santos.
The outcome depends on who blinks first – the unions who risk losing public support if the disruption goes on for too long, or the president whose two-and-a-half years in office have been rocked by waves of social unrest.
“NOISE IN THESTREETS”
Macron’s pension tsar Jean-Paul Delevoye is due to hold talks with the unions on Monday before the prime minister presents the broad outlines of the proposal to the public mid-week.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said far-reaching reform was needed to put the generous pension system on a sustainable footing. Fewer teachers went on strike on Friday, education ministry data showed.
“It would be much easier for us to do nothing,” Blanquer told BFM TV. “We could see through this five-year term without enacting deep reform. But if every presidency reasons in this way, our children will not have an acceptable pension system.”
Police had used tear gas in central Paris on Thursday afternoon when hooded protesters on the fringes of the trade unions’ march threw fireworks at officers, ransacked bus stops, and set fire to rubbish bins.
More than 800,000 people rallied in protests countrywide on Thursday. Union leaders put the numbers higher.
“There’s a noise in the streets, I hope the windows of the Elysee are open,” said Philippe Martinez, secretary-general of the CGT union, referring to the president’s office.
Macron wants to simplify the unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans. Rail workers and mariners can for instance retire up to a decade earlier than the average worker.
The president says the system is unfair and too costly and that the French will have to work longer, though he appears reluctant to simply raise the retirement age of 62.
One alternative is to curb benefits for those who stop working before 64 and give a benefits boost to those who leave later.
(Additional reporting by Simon Carraud, Bate Felix, Tangi Salaun and Sophie Louet; Writing by Christian Lowe and Richard Lough; Editing by Toby Chopra)