French state railway company SNCF employees watch and listen to the French prime minister unveiling the details of a pension reform plan on December 11 2019, in Paris. Picture: AFP/PHILIPPE LOPEZ
French state railway company SNCF employees watch and listen to the French prime minister unveiling the details of a pension reform plan on December 11 2019, in Paris. Picture: AFP/PHILIPPE LOPEZ

Paris — France’s prime minister insisted on Wednesday that the government would push ahead with reforms to the country’s fragmented pension system but offered concessions to unions as a crippling strike entered its seventh day.

Public transport networks in Paris and other main cities have been paralysed by the walkout, which began last Thursday and left shops, hotels and restaurants fearing for the impact on their bottom line.

In a televised address, Édouard Philippe said the highly contested pension changes would be implemented in phases, “without brutality”, and would not affect workers born before 1975.

There would be a guaranteed minimum pension of €1,000 for all who had worked their full quota of years, a higher amount than some — including farmers — currently receive. According to official statistics, the average pension in 2017 was just more than €1,600.

And the prime minister said the legal retirement age would remain 62, although an additional two years of work would be required from 2027 for people to leave with a full pension.

“The time has come to construct a universal retirement system,” said the head of government, insisting the overhaul would be fairer and would better protect vulnerable workers. “To guarantee our pension, to finance a higher level of solidarity, to benefit from a higher life expectancy without increasing taxes, the only solution is to work a bit longer, and progressively a bit longer, as is the case everywhere in Europe and everywhere in the world,” said Philippe, announcing the “incentive” for later retirement.

Philippe said the government’s proposals would “justify” the end of labour action that has disrupted national rail services and grounded many planes. Hundreds of thousands of people have also taken to the streets in two mass protests since last Thursday.

French unions have vowed to resist until the plan is withdrawn, in the biggest show of union force since President Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017 vowing to cut public spending and make the economy more competitive.

In anticipation of Philippe’s announcement, unions kept up the pressure on Wednesday with a seventh day of transport strike.

Unifying 42 pension systems 

The proposed reform will unite the 42 pension regimes across the public and private sectors into a single plan. It would replace the current pension calculations — based on a private-sector worker’s 25 best earning years, or six months for public servants — with a universal, points-based scheme.

Controversially, the government aims to scrap the more advantageous pension provisions enjoyed by some professions — including public transport and utilities workers, sailors, notaries, and Paris Opera performers. This would also be staggered, said Philippe.

The protests brought 339,000 people out on the streets around France on Tuesday and some 800,000 on the first day of the labour action last Thursday, according to official estimates.

They included teachers, hospital workers, firefighters, students, and members of the “yellow vests” anti-government movement that has been holding weekly rallies for the past year and which have sometimes turned violent.

Transport nightmare 

Striking workers blocked seven of France’s eight petrol refineries on Tuesday but the government said there had been no impact on petrol supplies.

Public transport in the capital remained at a near standstill on Wednesday, causing much frustration for working commuters and tourists alike. Nine out of Paris’s 16 metro lines were offline, five offered reduced services, and the only two driverless lines kept to their usual schedule though with a high risk of congestion, according to operator RATP. There were also fewer buses.

Trains linking Paris to its suburbs were running a minimum service, and commuters desperate to get to work squeezed into overfull carriages from the early hours of the morning.

The head of national rail traffic operator SNCF, Alain Krakovitch, warned the chaos that has also hobbled high-speed and international trains would likely continue “until the end of the week”, but some labour leaders have vowed to fight through until Christmas.

Those opposing the reform accuse former investment banker Macron of trying to roll back France’s costly but highly cherished welfare state. Their labour action has revived memories of three-week-long strikes over pension reform that crippled France in 1995, forcing the centre-right government of the day to reverse course.

AFP

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