More than a million French workers took to the streets to protest a government plan to reform the nation’s pension plans, including an increase in the retirement age.
“Now the government has its back to the wall,” the main French unions said in a joint statement. “Everyone knows that raising the retirement age only benefits employers and the rich.”
French President Emmanuel Macron intends to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 in an effort to keep the pension system financially viable, but unions say the change will threaten their rights.
The government says that pushing the retirement age back by two years will add 17.7 billion euros ($19.1 billion) in annual contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027, Reuters reported.
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Unions have proposed alternatives to the plan, such as taxing the rich or requiring more payroll contributions from employers to finance the system, but Macron continues to insist that his plan is the best way to resolve the situation.
“This problem can be solved in another way, through taxes. Workers should not have to pay for the public sector deficit,” said Laurent Berger, leader of CFDT, France’s largest workers’ union.
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Macron, who was in Barcelona for a Franco-Spanish summit, acknowledged the public discontent but said the reform was still needed to “save” French pensions. France’s aging population and rising life expectancy, coupled with its commitment to everyone receiving a state pension, have pushed the government to ensure the system remains solvent.
“We will do it with respect, in a spirit of dialogue but also with determination and responsibility,” Macron said.
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But the public is strongly opposed to the reform, and polls suggest that most people reject the proposal. The strikes on Thursday present the first public reaction to the plan, with disruptions to transport, schools and other public services as more than 200 demonstrations took place across the country.
The Interior Ministry said more than 1.1 million people protested, with around 800,000 in Paris alone. Unions have claimed that more than two million people took part in the protests across the country.
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The mostly peaceful protests resulted in minor skirmishes with police, with several dozen protesters arrested and police firing tear gas at some groups.
Unions have called for a second day of general strikes on January 31 as they try to force Macron to back down from his plan.
Associated Press contributed to this report.