Macron faces strike as French unions flex muscles

Macron faces strike as French unions flex muscles

Macron is in a hurry to push through pension reform by the middle of next year
Macron is in a hurry to push through pension reform by the middle of next year

PARIS - French schools, trains and businesses are set to be affected Thursday by the first major strike called since the re-election of President Emmanuel Macron in April, as unions push for wage hikes and the end of planned pension reform.

The extent of disruption remains uncertain, however, with the strike a test for the CGT union behind the protests, which is seeking to build support for a lengthy battle with the centrist government.

Macron has approved wage hikes for civil servants and teachers and put in place one of Europe's most generous anti-inflation safety nets that has capped energy prices for households and held down inflation.

But his insistence on raising the retirement age from its current level of 62 -- one of his main re-election campaign pledges -- has stirred up unions and other left-wing opponents and remains broadly unpopular around the country.

"We are against pushing back the age of retirement because we consider it an aberration when there are so many unemployed people in this country," Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, told the BFM broadcaster on Tuesday.

"Keeping people with work in their work means that people who haven't got any can't find it," he added.

Despite warnings from allies about the risk of failure, Macron has tasked his government with hiking the retirement age from the current age of 62, one of the lowest in Europe, with changes set to take effect next year.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, the former investment banker has argued that pushing back pensions and getting more people into jobs are the only ways the state can raise revenue without increasing taxes.

His centrist party lost its majority in parliament in June, severely undermining his ability to push through changes.

"If the president insists on declaring a social war on the people, we will respond with all the means at our disposal," the parliamentary leader of the France Unbowed (LFI) political party, Mathilde Panot, tweeted on Wednesday.

- Stoppages -

Thursday's strike has been called by the CGT, France's second-biggest union, with backing from smaller partners Solidaires and FSU.

The influential CFDT and hard-left FO unions have declined to take part, underlining splits in the country's once formidable labour movement which has struggled to stop Macron's economic and social security reforms since he came to power in 2017.

Around one in 10 schools in Paris are expected to shut for the day on Thursday, while 300 will close in the southern Bouches-du-Rhone area which includes Marseille.

"We can really see that teachers are fed up with their salaries... if on top of that, there's the issue of pensions, it risks creating some sparks," said Guislaine David from the Snuipp-FSU union.

SNCF railways and the RATP metro system in Paris are also bracing for disruption to services, while employees of oil and gas giant TotalEnergies have been on strike since Tuesday.

Despite anger over the soaring cost of living, Macron is in a hurry to push through pension reform, which he first promised in 2017 before pausing in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"I don't know anyone who wants to work for longer, but I don't know anyone who thinks they are not going to work for longer," a minister close to the president told AFP last week on condition of anonymity.

"Maybe I'm mistaken, but I'm not sure that the turnout will be as large as the unions and LFI are hoping for," the minister said.

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