French government raises retirement age as strikes grind on

Associated Press

Paris – France’s prime minister said Wednesday the full retirement age will be increased for the country’s youngest, but offered concessions in an ill-fated effort to calm a nationwide protest against pension reforms that critics say will erode the nation’s way of life.

The government is trying to make the pensions system sustainable and simpler but is facing huge public pressure, including a week of the most debilitating transport strikes in decades.

Major unions were quick to reject government proposals and vowed to strike on.

An empty railway platform at the Gare de l'Est railway station, in Paris, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.

The day after over 300,000 protested across France, authorities measured a log-jam of some 460 kilometers (285 miles) of traffic in Paris. All metro lines bar two were closed and many train routes remained canceled as unions dig in their heels against President Emmanuel Macron, who they accuse of shaping policies in favor of the rich.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe detailed the pension reforms in a speech on Wednesday, saying bluntly that the French “will need to work longer.”

It was rich in detail. People born after 1974 will have to work until the age of 64 to get a full pension, instead of 62 previously. Those born before that date will not be affected in any way, he said, throwing out a sweetener.

The leader of the prominent CGT workers’ union, Philippe Martinez, flatly rejected the new plans.

“The government is making fun of everyone,” he said. Several other unions including Workers’ Force, said the prime minister’s address only “confirms the necessity to step up the strike action.”

The new scheme is aimed at replacing a complicated pension system that included dozens of special privileges for some sectors, like public transport, with one set of rules for all.

Philippe said the changes would ensure the pension system is “fair and sustainable” in the face of a growing population with, a record number of people over 90.

For people entering the workforce, the reforms will only start to apply in 2022, which happens to be the last year of Macron’s term. The government also introduced the country’s first ever minimum pension, which will be available to those who worked their whole life, at a relatively high 1,000 euros ($1,100) per month. That compares with 858 euros (723 pounds) a month in the U.K.

Beginning under Macron’s watch, it will be harder for the law to be undone by a successive president but late enough in his mandate to avert protracted political harm.

The plans though seem to have done little to abate the strikes that were billed as “unlimited” and threatened to mirror similar ones in 1995 that caused the ousting of Prime Minister Alain Juppe. That action paralyzed the country with widespread public support and were themselves compared to the events of May 1968, when France reached the brink of revolution.

Many French people and the unions leading the strikes fear the new system will force people to work longer for smaller pension allocations.

Amid all the political speeches, the strikes continue to cripple the eurozone’s second-largest economy and the mood among the public remains strained but understanding.