World

France paralysed as unions start strike

Protest against President Macron's new pension system kicks off

PARIS : A nationwide strike shut down public transport, schools and other services across France yesterday as unions kicked off an open-ended strike against President Emmanuel Macron's plans for a "universal" pension system they say will force millions of people to work longer.

Parents scrambled to organise daycare as teachers walked off the job or could not get to work, and many employees worked from home or were forced to take the day off as trains, metros and buses were cancelled.

Union leaders have vowed to keep up their protest unless Mr Macron drops the pension overhaul, the latest move in the centrist's push to reform wide swathes of the French economy.

"The idea of social concertation that Macron says is so important in fact doesn't exist," the head of the General Confederation of Labour union Philippe Martinez said on BFM television yesterday.

Around 90 per cent of high-speed TGV trains as well as regional lines were cancelled, and Air France has axed 30 per cent of domestic flights and 15 per cent of short-haul international routes.

In Paris, 11 of the 16 metro lines were shut down and others had bare-bones service during the morning rush hour, and the Eiffel Tower turned away tourists because there were not enough workers to open the monument in secure conditions.

The strike - which is open-ended - has drawn comparisons with the showdown between government and unions over pensions in 1995. Unions won that battle and are banking on widespread support from both public and private-sector workers against Mr Macron's reform.

WORK LONGER

The government has yet to unveil the details of the new pension project, but officials have conceded that people will have to work longer for the system to remain financial viable.

The strike will be a major test of whether Mr Macron has the political strength to push through one of his key campaign pledges. He has already succeeded in an overhaul of the state rail operator SNCF, long seen as an untouchable union bastion. He has also largely seen off the "yellow vest" protests against falling living standards a year ago, but that anger could feed into the latest protest.

"The moment of truth for Macron," the Le Monde daily wrote in yesterday's edition.

"The next days are a decisive test for the head of state."

Mr Macron wants to implement a "universal" retirement system that would do away with 42 "special regimes" for sectors ranging from rail and energy workers to lawyers, which often grant workers higher pensions or early retirement.

But unions say the changes would require millions of private-sector workers to work beyond the legal retirement age of 62 if they want to receive the full pension promised to them.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who has acknowledged workers will have to work longer, is set to unveil details of the reform on Dec 12. - AFP

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