French unions have called for a fresh day of mass protests next Tuesday as a nationwide strike over pensions caused fresh travel chaos for the second straight day.
Buoyed by high turnout on Thursday when a million-odd French took to the streets to protest against the government’s plan to end exorbitant pension perks for certain sectors, unions ratcheted up the pressure by announcing a second national day of protest next week.
Said to be “calm and determined”, President Emmanuel Macron was cited as telling ministers he “cannot run for re-election” if he fails to enact “the mother of all reforms” by creating a “universal”, points-based system that cuts unjustified perks for some and makes the system fairer for all.
The strikers are fighting to preserve an archaic patchwork of 42 “special regimes” – one that dates back to Louis XIV – that guarantee workers in particular sectors cosseted retirement as early as 55.
On average French workers retire at 62 with a publicly-funded pension equal to 74pc of their final salary, compared to 29pc in Britain. The system functioned when the active workforce vastly outnumbered pensioners but with an ageing population, the national rail regime alone requires €8bn per year of taxpayer’s money to remain afloat, say proponents.
Now, each euro of contributions will confer the same pension rights, they insist.
That is not how the leftist CGT union and others see it.
“In France, we have the best pension system in the world,” said CGT leader Philippe Martinez, whose union is the most powerful among rail workers.
“The government has to go back to the drawing board,” he said and scrap the current reform plan that will “increase poverty in the country”, he said on Friday.
“The current system is good and it needs to be improved,” he insisted.
"We need (the number of protesters) to increase even further if we want to weigh on (government) decisions. We need to extend the strikes to all companies," he said.
His warning has come even before the government has unveiled the details of the reform, with only its broad brushstrokes known. Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, is due to present the plan sometime next week.
But the level of public support for the strike – around 70 per cent – suggests at the very least that the government is losing the PR battle to sell an overhaul of a pension system a majority of French agree is necessary. Polls suggest most fear the changes will not be socially equitable.
The government is yet to announce when the new system will kick in, with some calling for a five to ten-year wait and others for a “grandfather clause” – meaning it would only affect new contributors to pension regimes, a move that would effectively put off the reform indefinitely.
Health minister Agnes Buzyn said on Friday that the government had "heard" the protesters’ anger and would meet with union leaders to discuss the reform on Monday. She told Europe 1 radio that "there is indeed a discussion going on about who will be affected, what age it kicks in, which generations will be concerned – all that is still on the table".
Meanwhile, travel chaos continued across France. Rail operator SNCF said 90 per cent of high-speed TGV trains were again cancelled, and several airlines dropped flights including Air France, EasyJet and Ryanair. Eurostar cancelled 29 trains on Friday.
Nine of the capital’s 16 metro lines were shut and most others severely disrupted, sparking some 220 miles of tailbacks in the Paris region. Many employees were unable to get to work and many schools again provided only daycare. Thursday’s marches were mainly peaceful.
It remains to be seen whether “yellow vests” will return to big cities in large numbers on Saturday to support the movement.