French Unions Pledge to Keep the Heat on Macron Over Pensions

(Bloomberg) -- France’s labor unions have shown they can bring workers out in force. Now, they say they’ll continue to go toe-to-toe with President Emmanuel Macron in opposition to his plans to reform the nation’s pension system.

“A red line has been crossed,” said Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, seen as one of France’s more moderate unions. The CFDT is set to fight against Macron’s plan for a one-size-fits-all pension program including a single age for reaching full benefits, Berger said Wednesday. The union urged workers to join another day of protests on Dec. 17.

Union-led disruptions have hampered public transportation, rail and airline traffic and fuel deliveries throughout France since last week, as workers protest changes to one of Europe’s most complex and generous pension programs.

“This reform was tailored to budget targets,” Berger said. “We will try to undo that in the coming weeks.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Wednesday unveiled the government’s plan to update the national pension program, with a proposal for a new system to take effect in 2025. Under the new plan, the age for full pension eligibility would be pushed back two years, to 64, starting in 2027.

France needs a pension system that’s “fairer, more solid, more balanced for everyone,” Philippe said in a TV interview on TF1 on Wednesday. “Everywhere in Europe, there’s an understanding that in order to protect pensions and workers’ purchasing power, we have to work -- progressively -- a bit longer.”

A reform bill will be submitted to parliament in February, and unions have been invited to discuss budgetary details with the government and lawmakers.

Philippe has asked organized labor to end protests as he seeks to push through one of the 41-year-old Macron’s core election pledges. The government claims it’s made concessions already in the reform package, including provisions for health care workers, people working night shifts and women with children, but Philippe said he was “open-minded” on these particular points in the TV interview.

Commuters in Paris, Marseille and Lyon have been forced to walk, cycle or ride scooters to work during the protests, as public transportation has come to a near standstill. Passenger rail service is running at a fraction of its full capacity across the nation.

While demonstrations late last week saw the biggest turnout since Macron took office in 2017, turnout had fallen by roughly half on Tuesday. Mobility in city centers including Paris’s continued to be affected by police blockades.

While Macron has already pushed through reforms of tax and labor laws, history shows changes to the pension system are much harder to pull off. In 1995, Prime Minister Alain Juppe abandoned his pension reform plan after strikes paralyzed the country for about a month.

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