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France faces widespread protests and ‘hellish Thursday’ as anger at pension reform mounts


By Joseph Ataman and Marguerite Lacroix, CNN

French workers are set to take to the streets Thursday to protest radical reforms to the country’s pension system that, if implemented, will require most people in France to work two years longer before retirement.

Eight of France’s largest unions – covering transportation, education, police, executives and public sectors – called for Thursday to be the “first day of strikes and protests” against the proposed pensions reform.

Widespread strikes are expected, and it may be “a hellish Thursday” on public transport networks, Transport Minister Clement Beaune warned French broadcaster France 2 Tuesday. Paris’ transport authority predicts “very disrupted” service on the city’s transport network.

One in five flights in and out of Paris’ Orly airport will be cancelled for the day, according to France’s civil aviation authority, due to striking air traffic control workers. The authority said that this did not exclude the possibility of further delays and cancellations to the remaining flights.

Some 70% of primary school teachers are also expected to strike across France, according to the main union for this sector, Snuipp-FSU, with one in three primary schools in Paris closed. The Snes-FSU Union said some 50% of secondary school teachers in France will also be on strike.

France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told French radio station RTL Wednesday that more than 10,000 police and gendarmerie officers will be deployed across France Thursday in the face of protests; 3,500 of these will be in Paris.

The government has defended the reforms as a book-balancing and progressive policy change, which will see the pensions deficit brought to heel in 2030.

“If we don’t pass this reform the books will not be balanced, which means that we will have to lower the pensions for retired people or increase the contributions of working people, thus reducing purchasing power of French people,” Government MP Stephanie Rist told CNN Wednesday.

Despite anger on the street, the government – lacking a parliamentary majority – still has a constitutional avenue to crowbar the reforms past lawmakers and into law.

But many have blasted the reforms as ill-timed at best; at worst, an insult to hard-working people in France.

“This reform falls at a moment where there is lots of anger, lots of frustration, lots of fatigue. It’s coming at the worst moment, in fact,” CFE-CGC union chief François Hommeril told CNN Tuesday, pointing to the inflation that has wracked Europe this year following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Government spokesperson Olivier Veran told journalists Wednesday that 40 percent of French workers will be able to leave work before 64 under the proposed regime thanks to exceptions for those who started work early or in physically taxing jobs.

“We have the most protective, the most developed system in Europe,” for pensions, he said, adding, “Even after the reforms, we will retire in France better off and earlier than in almost all eurozone countries.”

Pensions reform has long been a controversial issue in France, with street protests halting reform efforts in 1995, and successive governments facing stiff resistance to reforms that eventually passed in 2004, 2008 and 2010.

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