French workers are furious over the president’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64

Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron visiting the Jean Lartaut Middle School in Jarnac, western France, on February 28, 2023.
Stephane Mahe—POOL/AFP/Getty Images

French unions saw a rebound in turnout on Tuesday in a fresh round of strikes and protests aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to abandon his plan to raise the minimum retirement age.

Rail company SNCF said services were severely disrupted and would remain so on Wednesday, urging travelers to postpone trips. Eurostar has scrapped 38 international trains linking London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam over the two days.

Paris subway and commuter schedules were also heavily impacted, according to operator RATP, which advised people to work from home if possible and predicted further disruption on Wednesday. Air France said it expected to operate eight out of 10 short- and medium-haul flights on both days.

Trucks were unable to access any of France’s six main oil refineries due to striking workers, disrupting supply of fuels such as gasoline and diesel to the nation’s filling stations. Walkouts curbed Electricite de France SA’s hydropower capacity by 5.6 gigawatts early Tuesday.

“It’s going to be the biggest day of mobilization since the start of this conflict,” CGT union head Philippe Martinez told reporters. “We see people are still determined, and the anger is still just as strong.”

Making the French work longer and retire later is a key plank of Macron’s plan to make the economy more attractive for investment and business. He says raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 is necessary to keep public finances sound while funding other priorities such as the green transition.

Labor unions share broad opposition to the overhaul and are betting on a surge in the number of people taking part in a sixth round of protests on Tuesday after participation dropped significantly in February from a peak of 1.27 million on Jan. 31, according to Interior Ministry estimates.

Provisional government figures showed a sharp uptick in public sector workers striking. The numbers were slightly below those seen at the same time on the first day of protests on Jan. 19. Labor leaders have said many workers are limiting the number of days they walk out in order to preserve incomes at a time when surging inflation is already pushing up the cost of living.

Opinion polls indicate French opposition to the overhaul remains high, though off its peak. A survey of 1,002 adults by pollster Ifop for L’Humanite newspaper carried out on March 2-3 showed 65% of those interviewed want the government to withdraw the reform and support renewable strikes.

Macron’s government has shown no sign of backing down, however. Indeed, a poll of 1,119 people by Harris Interactive for RTL radio and AEF Info on March 3-6 showed 79% expect parliament ultimately to adopt the changes.

The legislation is being reviewed by the Senate through March 12. The goal is for it to come into effect in September.

Macron’s determination to push through the reform despite public opposition is set against a backdrop of mounting concern over inflation. Consumer prices in France jumped by a euro-era record of 7.2% in February from a year ago as food and services costs increased.

“There’s of course never a good moment to carry out a pension reform, but some times are worse than others — and this is a particularly bad one,” Bernard Sananes, president of pollster Elabe, told Bloomberg. “The pension reform is adding a layer of difficulty to those whose daily life is already difficult, and this is what the government underestimated.”

On Monday, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire unveiled a deal with retailers in which they agreed to take a hit to their margins amounting to several hundred million euros by offering the lowest possible prices for essential food items during a three-month campaign to help households.

As for the impact of the strikes on the French economy, it shouldn’t be overestimated, according to Charlotte de Montpellier, ING senior economist for France and Switzerland.

“Disruptions have been, for now, limited to some very specific sectors, such as transport,” she wrote. “Given the development of home working since the pandemic, it is likely that the indirect costs of transport disruptions on other sectors of activity will be much more limited than in previous strikes.”

The hit to economic growth could become quantifiable if the protests intensify drastically and some sectors are blocked for several weeks, she said, though an impact greater than 0.2 percentage points seems very unlikely.

–With assistance from Julien Ponthus and Francois de Beaupuy.

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