French unions dismiss pension changes and vow to continue strikes
French unions have vowed to continue a nationwide strike that has brought transport to a virtual standstill as they dismissed the prime minister’s proposals on changing the pensions system.
After a week of strikes and demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people, the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, gave a televised speech outlining the government’s planned pensions overhaul.
He vowed that the controversial pension changes would be implemented in phases, “without brutality”, and conceded that they would not affect workers born before 1975. He called the plan “fair” and said it justified putting a stop to the strikes.
He said the government would introduce France’s first ever minimum pension, available to those who have worked their entire lives, set at €1,000 (£841) per month – higher than the UK’s equivalent.
Crucially, Philippe said the legal retirement age would remain 62, although an additional two years of work would be required from 2027 for people to leave with a full pension. This means people born after 1974 will have to work until the age of 64 to get a full pension.
But this was seen by unions as effectively raising the standard retirement age and proved highly contentious for even the most moderate unions, who have been open to negotiating with the government.
“A red line has been crossed,” said Laurent Berger, secretary general of the moderate CFDT union. Members were meeting to decide what steps to take on industrial action.
The leader of the prominent leftwing CGT union rejected the plans, saying the government was making fun of the country.
Railworkers in several unions called for the strike to be intensified. On Thursday, rail standstills will continue with many lines closed and some planes grounded. Many schools will be shut, and some police unions have joined the action.
Commuters have struggled to get to work amid crushes to get on the few trains in the greater Paris area, and there have been huge traffic tailbacks in and around cities.
Pensions are a key issue in France because they are a central part of the French social model and state protections. Almost all workers contribute to a form of state pension, with far fewer private pensions than in neighbouring countries.
Some demonstrators are concerned that the new rules in France could boost private pension funds to make others rich.
The pro-business president, Emmanuel Macron, has promised to deliver the biggest transformation of the French social model and welfare system since the postwar era, and he sees his pension changes as a key test. He has staked his political credibility on refusing to buckle in the face of street protests, accusing previous presidents of lacking resolve.
With Macron potentially aiming to run for a second term in office in 2022, backing down would risk losing his support base. But demonstrators say they fear France’s social safety net is being unpicked.
The government argues that unifying the pensions system – and getting rid of the 42 “special” regimes for sectors ranging from rail and energy workers to lawyers and Paris Opera staff – is crucial to keep the system financially viable as the population ages. Unions say the changes are an attack on fundamental worker rights, and they fear people will have to work longer for smaller pensions.
The proposed changes would unite into a single plan the current 42 pension regimes across the public and private sectors. It would replace the current pension calculations – based on a private sector worker’s 25 best earning years, or six months for public servants – with a universal points-based scheme. Philippe said on Wednesday that introduction of this change would be gradual and staggered.