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Emmanuel Macron defies protests over pension reforms

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Via Financial Times

Emmanuel Macron’s government has unveiled long-awaited legislation for a pensions reform that sparked the longest public transport strike in France’s history, as workers protested against the overhaul throughout the country.

The project is the flagship economic policy for the second half of the president’s term in office, but it has become his biggest challenge since the gilets jaunes demonstrations that shook Paris and other cities from late 2018.

Mr Macron wants to replace 42 existing schemes — some of which grant early retirement and generous pensions to workers such as railway employees — with a single system based on points, which his administration says will be fairer and benefit women.

The government pushed ahead with its programme on Friday in the face of demonstrations aimed at reinvigorating a campaign of walkouts and protests involving teachers, lawyers and civil servants which began on December 5 but has faded in recent weeks.

Normal service had largely resumed on Paris’s public transport system this week during a brief pause in strikes, but its roads, railways and metro lines were once again disrupted on Friday. The interior ministry claimed a turnout of 31,000 in the capital, and about 249,000 people protested in other cities, according to official estimates.

“When a reform is unjust, there is every reason to mobilise,” said Philippe Martinez, the general secretary of the hardline Confédération Générale du Travail union, which is demanding the complete withdrawal of the reform. “This is not the last stand. There will be three new days of mobilisation next week.”

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Despite a concession from the government earlier this month that it would suspend an increase in the pension age from 62 to 64, health minister Agnès Buzyn said the principle of raising the age to balance the system’s finances would remain intact and take effect from 2037.

“This remains in the law, it hasn’t been rejected by the social partners [trade unions and employers’ organisation],” said Ms Buzyn. However an impact study published alongside the bills revealed that, even with the changes, the pension system would only break even by around 2050.

Public support for the movement has grown from 44 per cent on January 2 to 51 per cent two weeks later, according to the pollster IFOP. Six in 10 French people want Mr Macron to withdraw the reform, a survey by BFM TV-Elabe 6 found this week.

“The paradox is that despite a smaller mobilisation in the streets, [public] opinion seems to support the movement more,” said Chloé Morin from the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a think-tank. “President Macron is giving the impression of quickening the decline of the French social model.”

Even as the strikes have petered out there have been outbursts of wildcat actions, such as the restarting of port blockades and small-scale deliberate power cuts over the past week. The headquarters of the moderate Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail was stormed by protesters, while a theatre where Mr Macron watched a play with his wife last week was besieged by activists.

Discussions between the government, reformist unions including the CFDT and the employers’ federation Medef are set to begin next week, but ministers have indicated they will take executive action if no resolution is reached.

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Emeline Briantais, 42, a workplace inspector with the ministry of labour, was on her 11th day of walkouts and estimated she stood to lose €250 a month from her pension under the reforms.

“We are going to lose in retirement so it’s better to fight than have a weaker pension,” she said.

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