France on strike: Unions say ‘non’ to higher pension age

Unions threatened to freeze up the French economy with work stoppages across multiple sectors

A woman walks past a pile of garbage cans Tuesday, March 7, 2023 in Paris.
A woman walks past a pile of garbage cans Tuesday, March 7, 2023 in Paris.Michel Euler (AP)

Garbage collectors, utility workers and train drivers are among people walking off the job on Tuesday across France to show their anger at a bill raising the retirement age to 64, which unions see as a broader threat to the French social model.

More than 250 protests are expected in Paris and around the country in what organizers hope is their biggest show of force yet against President Emmanuel Macron’s showcase legislation, after nearly two months of demonstrations. The bill is under debate in the French Senate this week.

Unions threatened to freeze up the French economy with work stoppages across multiple sectors, most visibly an open-ended strike at the SNCF national rail authority.

Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, said the protest movement is “entering a new phase,” on news broadcaster FranceInfo.

“The goal is that the government withdraw its draft reform. Full stop,” he said. Some unions have called for open-ended strikes in sectors from refineries and oil depots to electricity and gas facilities. Workers in each sector will decided locally in the evening about whether to prolong the movement, Martinez said.

All oil shipments in the country have been halted on Tuesday amid strikes at the refineries of TotalEnergies, Esso-ExxonMobil and Petroineos groups, according to the CGT.

Truckers have sporadically blocked major highway arteries and interchanges in go-slow actions near several cities in French regions.

In Paris, garbage collectors have started an open-ended strike and blocked on Tuesday morning the access to the incineration plant of Ivry-sur-Seine, south of the capital, Europe’s biggest such facility.

“The job of a garbage collector is painful. We usually work very early or late ... 365 days per year. We usually have to carry heavy weight or stand up for hours to sweep,” said Regis Viecili, a 56-year-old garbage worker.

Some strikers said that such an intense rhythm has a negative impact on their daily life and that the job was so demanding that they often experienced tendinitis and aches. That’s why they have a special pension plan. But with the planned changes, they would have to retire at 59 instead of 57.

“A lot of garbage workers die before the retirement age,” Viceli said.

“A garbage worker has seven years less life expectancy than a regular employee,” said Natacha Pommet, a CGT union activist.

Commuters packed into one of the rare trains heading for Paris from the southern suburbs before dawn. The government encouraged people to work from home if their jobs allow.

A fifth of flights were canceled at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport and about a third of flights were scrapped at Orly Airport. Trains to Germany and Spain were expected to come to a halt, and those to and from Britain and Belgium will be reduced by a third, according to the SNCF rail authority.

Most high-speed trains and regional trains have been canceled. More than 60% of teachers in primary schools were expected to be on strike, as well as public sector workers elsewhere. Public transportation was disrupted in most French cities.

On the French Riviera, there were no intercity trains, including those linking France to Italy via Monaco, impacting tens of thousands of daily commuters to the principality.

The reform would raise the official pension age from 62 to 64 and require 43 years of work by 2030 to earn a full pension, amid other measures. The government argues the system is expected to dive into deficit within a decade as France’s population ages and life expectancy lengthens. Opinion polls suggest that most French voters oppose the bill.

At the Saint Lazare train station in Paris, Briki Mokrane, a 54-year-old fire safety worker, said “obviously it’s very very difficult for workers, but unfortunately in France it’s always the same: we have to have strikes or demonstrations to preserve our rights.”

Left-wing lawmakers say companies and the wealthy should pitch in more to finance the pension system.

France’s eight main unions and five youth organizations will meet on Tuesday evening to decide about the next steps of the mobilization.

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