France’s Macron faces third round of pension reform strikes

A member of CFDT labour union prepares placards on the eve of the third day of national strike and protests in France against French government's pension reform plan, in Nice, France, February 6, 2023. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron and his government on Tuesday braced for a third wave of nationwide strikes and protests against plans to make the French work longer before retirement, as the bill started its bumpy passage through parliament.

Rail services will be disrupted, school classes cancelled and refinery deliveries impacted as workers across multiple sectors walk out, and trade unions have urged the public once again to take to the streets in big numbers.

The government says people must work two years longer – meaning for most until the age of 64 – in order keep the budget of one of the industrial world’s most generous pension systems in the black.

The French spend the largest number of years in retirement among OECD countries – a deeply cherished benefit that a substantial majority are reluctant to give up, polls show.

“Our pension system is structurally in deficit,” Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt told parliament on Monday afternoon as lawmakers began debating the bill. “We’re acting for our generation and for generations to come.”

The government says the reform will allow gross savings of over 17 billion euros ($18 billion) per year by 2030.

Unions and leftwing opponents say the money can be found elsewhere, notably from the wealthy. Conservative opponents, whose support Macron needs for a working majority in the National Assembly, want concessions for those who start working young.

“The reform will never be accepted if the most wealthy don’t contribute,” former Socialist president Francois Hollande told BFM TV. “In all past pension reforms, even that of (conservative) Nicolas Sarkozy, the highest earners contributed.”

“Here there is nothing.”

More than a million people marched in cities across France during the first two days of strike action in January, as public pressure intensified against a government that insists it will stand its ground on the reforms main planks.

In parliament, more than 20,000 amendments lie before lawmakers, the vast majority from the leftwing Nupes alliance. However, because the reform has been tacked onto an annual social security bill, the government may send it to the Senate after just two weeks.

In a concession to conservatives, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has offered to let some people who start work early also retire early – but Les Republicains (LR) lawmakers are divided over whether the proposed starting age of 20-21 is low enough.

“Someone who starts work earlier, stops working earlier. What’s so difficult to understand @Elisabeth_Borne,” Aurelien Pradie, a lead LR critic of the current proposal, tweeted.

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