Sixth day of strikes brings France to a ‘standstill’

Strikes and protests take place across France against pension reforms
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Unions disrupted fuel deliveries and public transport in France on 7 March. They’d kicked off a fresh day of strikes and protests against pension reforms that would push back the retirement age for millions. The call for people to take to the streets saw more than a million people across the country responding.

Blockading the economy

Unions vowed to bring the country to a standstill with strikes over the proposed changes. These include raising the minimum retirement age to 64 from 62 and increasing the number of years people have to make contributions for a full pension. During a rally in Paris, CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labour) union chief Laurent Berger said:

The government has to take (resistance) into account when there are so many people in the street, when they’re having so much trouble explaining and passing their reform.

By midday on 7 March, around 39% of workers at state rail operator SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français) had walked off the job, a union source told Agence France-Presse (AFP). That would make it the highest number since this year’s first strike against the pension reform on 19 January. Only one in five regional and high-speed trains were running.

Meanwhile, the Guardian said up to 30% of flights were cancelled on 7 and 8 March as air traffic controllers went on strike. Additionally, the CGT (General Confederation of Labour) union said strikers had blocked fuel deliveries from refineries across France. As a result, petrol stations may run short if protests continue.

Despite the disruption, there was public support for the protests. According to a survey by polling company Elabe, 56% of respondents said they supported rolling strikes. 59% also backed the call to bring the country to a standstill.

An anonymous source told AFP that police had expected between 1.1 million and 1.4 million people to hit the streets. The upper limit of that range would mean stronger opposition than during the five previous days of rallies. The biggest day of demonstrations so far brought 1.27 million people to the street on 31 January.

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Next moves

The government has argued that changes are crucial to keep France’s pensions system from falling into deep deficit. But unions contest that conclusion and say small increases in contributions could keep it solvent. They also argue that the proposed measures are unfair. The new measures would disproportionately affect low-skilled workers who start their careers early, as well as women.

The bill is now being debated in the upper house of parliament. Two weeks of heated discussion in the lower house previously ended without even reaching a vote on raising the retirement age. President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government is hoping to push through the reform in parliament with help from the right, without resorting to a controversial mechanism that would bypass a parliamentary vote but risk fuelling more protests.

Workers’ representatives are set to meet in the evening of 7 March to decide on their next moves.

Featured image via Independent/YouTube

Additional reporting by Agence-France Presse

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