Meeting between French prime minister and unions fails ahead of pension protests

A giant banner emblazoned with the words ‘64, it’s no’ was displayed by unionists on the top of the Arc de Triomphe monument soon after the meeting broke up

CGT unionists display a giant banner written "64, it's no" on the top of the Arc de Triomphe monument
CGT unionists display a giant banner written "64, it's no" on the top of the Arc de Triomphe monument, Wednesday, April 5, 2023, in Paris.Michel Euler (AP)

French trade union leaders walked out of talks with Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Wednesday after failing to find a compromise on the contentious plan to raise the country’s legal retirement age from 62 to 64 years. The heads of France’s major unions, who want the withdrawal of the pension plan, met with Borne a day before the planned 11th round of nationwide strikes and protests since January.

A giant banner emblazoned with the words: “64, it’s no” was displayed by unionists on the top of the Arc de Triomphe monument soon after the meeting broke up. They removed it after police arrived at the landmark.

“We have chosen to end that useless meeting,” the head of the hard-left CGT union, Sophie Binet, told reporters. “We have found in front of us a radicalized, stubborn, disconnected government. It’s a slap in the face to the millions of French who take to the streets.”

The secretary general of the more moderate CFDT union, Laurent Berger, denounced what he called “a serious democratic crisis.”

“Public opinion is increasingly against this reform since January,” he said. He called for a “maximum of workers to get mobilized” and “join the marches” staged across the country Thursday.

Borne was adamant about the necessity of the planned reform. “I told them again I am convinced… of the need for a reform,” she said.

“I think it was important in the moment our country is going through to be able to talk with each other, that’s what we were able to do,” she added.

The government argues the reform is needed to make the French pension system financially sustainable in the coming years as France’s population ages. Unions say other options are possible, like making companies and the wealthy pay more to finance the pension system.

Unions, which in the past have bickered, have maintained a rare united front since January. They hope for a strong turnout at Thursday’s protest marches and strikes to keep up pressure on the government.

However, disruptions to public transport were expected to be only moderate compared to past days of mobilization.

The Paris Metro was expected to be nearly normal, according to the RATP, which runs the system. Eurostar trains that link France to Britain also are not likely to suffer, and 75 percent of high-speed intercity trains are expected to be in operation. The Civil Aviation Authority warned of potential cancellations and delays at airports in Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes.

Ongoing strikes at several fuel refineries, with some operations stopped, continued, translating into scattered gas shortages at stations in parts of France.

The contested retirement reform also would require 43 years of work to earn a full pension at 64, otherwise workers would have to wait until they turn 67. Opinion polls show a large majority of French people are against the changes.

Opponents have been further angered by President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to stand strong on the retirement bill that his government forced through parliament without a vote.

The bill is now being examined by the Constitutional Council, which is expected to say on April 14 whether it approves full or parts of the text — the last step before the law can enter into force.

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