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French workers join strikes against Macron's pension reform plan

Protesters demonstrate against the French government's proposed pension reforms in Saint-Nazaire, as part of a day of nationwide strikes on January 19, 2023. (Photo by Reuters)

French workers have gone on strike and joined nationwide marches on a day of protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s very unpopular pensions reform plan.

Train drivers, teachers and refinery workers were among those who walked off their jobs in Paris and several other major cities on Thursday. "It's salaries and pensions that must be increased, not the retirement age," read one large banner carried by workers that opened the protest march in Tours, western France.

In Nice, southern France, a large banner read, "No to the reform."

French police fired tear gas during a protest in Paris when individuals in hoodies and face masks hurled projectiles at their lines. Police had prepared for 550,000 to 750,000 protesters, including 50,000 to 80,000 in the capital.

The suggested reform would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and increase contributions required for a full pension.

Isabelle, 53, a social worker, said her job was too tough to add two more years.

The industrial action across different sectors halted trains and cut electricity production.

The SNCF rail operator said only between one-in-three and one-in-five high-speed TGV lines were operating. In the capital, some metro stations were closed and traffic was seriously disrupted, with few trains running. In the busy Gare du Nord station, people rushed to catch the few trains still operating.

France Inter radio ran its music playlist instead of its usual programming.

Some seven out of 10 primary school teachers stopped work, and nearly as many in high schools, their unions said.

EDF and grid operator RTE data showed electricity production was down by roughly 12% of total power supply, prompting France to raise imports. Shipments were blocked at TotalEnergies' (TTEF.PA) refineries in France.

The stoppages are a major test for Macron, who says his pension reform plan is vital to ensure the system does not go bust.

Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt has said the reform was vital. "This reform is necessary and fair."

But the protesters disagree. The unions are hoping for over a million demonstrators in more than 200 cities across France. They argue there are other ways to ensure the viability of the pension system such as taxing the super-rich or increasing employers' contributions or those of well-off pensioners.

Union leaders, expected to announce more strikes and protests in the evening, said Thursday was just the beginning. "We need a lot of people to join the protests," Laurent Berger, head of France's largest union, CFDT, told BFM TV. "People are against this reform ... we need to show it (in the streets)."

The pension reform still needs to go through parliament, where Macron has lost his absolute majority but is hoping to get it passed with the support of conservatives.

Opinion polls show that around two-thirds of French people oppose raising the retirement age, a move that comes amid high inflation and with the country still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Macron's last attempt at pension reform in 2019, aborted a year later when COVID-19 hit Europe, prompted the longest strike on the Paris transport network in three decades.

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