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French pension reform strike: what will next week’s protest look like?

Several sectors including energy and transport are expected to participate with unions presenting a united front

Unions are planning a coordinated day of protests and strike action against the government’s pension reform bill Pic: Hadrian / Shutterstock

[Article updated January 12 at 12:25 with reaction from Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne.]

France’s main trade unions are calling for a day of protest against the government’s pension reform bill next Thursday (January 19) and promise a “massive” scale of mobilisation. 

The CFDT, CGT, FO, CFE-CGC, CFTC, Unsa, Solidaires and FSU unions have formed a united front against the bill, which was presented by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne on Tuesday (January 10). 

Government proposals include a progressive increase to the retirement age, which would reach 64 by 2030, and a rise in basic monthly pension payments from €1,100 to €1,200 for retirees. 

Read more: Age, new minimum amount: What does France’s pension reform involve?

“If workers decide it, France will come to a halt,” the leader of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, told BFMTV, and Frédéric Souillot of FO added: “We are thinking of mobilising on a massive scale.” 

Unions are calling for demonstrations in French cities but also a strike that will act as the first in a series of industrial movements. 

Which sectors might be affected? 

Mobilisation is expected to be most significant in sectors like energy and transport, which are set to lose their régimes spéciaux (special regime) pension plans that enable workers to retire earlier. 

Under the government’s reform, new workers entering the industries would not be covered by these schemes. 

Several union sources have said that they are expecting a “serious conflict” in energy companies like EDF and RTE, suggesting that power stations could be unable to run normally if many workers mobilise. 

The CGT has also called for TotalEnergies refinery workers to take part in strikes on January 19, January 26 and February 6, which may result in a drop in production and distribution. 

Rail workers with SNCF and RATP are warning of a “powerful strike” in opposition to the proposed raising of the retirement age and the increase in the number of quarters during which someone must contribute in order to draw a full pension. 

Unions are aligned with left-wing parties in their opposition to the pension reform. All of the parliamentary groups belonging to the Nupes coalition are against the bill, and will join the January 19 movement. 

“We are encouraging everyone [...] to go and hand out leaflets to stir up healthcare workers in hospitals [...] to go and look for teachers in lycées [...] to look for workers in workshops and tell them ‘it’s now, now’s the moment’,” Somme MP François Ruffin has said. 

On the other side of the political spectrum, Rassemblement National has also criticised the bill, and Marine Le Pen has vowed to create a “roadblock” against it. 

After January 19, unions will decide on further strike dates, with the memory of 1995 in mind. In December of that year, a series of general strikes were called, paralysing France’s transport infrastructure, with grievances also including changes to the retirement age, this time of SNCF workers. 

Millions of people took part in demonstrations, forcing the government to go back on its proposed pension reform.

Mr Martinez has said: “We can even do better [than 1995] because there is despondency” now. 

60% of people in France support movement

The success of the January 19 protest will depend, of course, on the number of people taking part.  A survey carried out by Elabe for BFMTV after Ms Borne’s Tuesday announcement found that 60% of people in France support protest action against the pension reform. 

This figure rises to 67% among employees, 65% among labourers and 68% among 50 to 64-year-olds.

Some 46% of people said that they were prepared to mobilise in the coming weeks. 

Political scientist Dominique Andolfatto had told La Dépêche that unions will need to get "more than a million" people protesting in the streets to have an "impact" on government plans.

He added that it is "very difficult" to predict whether people will participate or not, especially because sectors such as rail and energy have already been involved in significant strike action recently. 

Signs on cars 

Opposition to the pension reform could also take more subtle forms, Laurent Escure of the Unsa union has said. 

“I invite everyone to demonstrate their discontent simply by putting a sign on their car,” he said. 

The pension reform bill is set to be debated by Parliament from January 23.

Prime Minister calls on unions to acknowledge their 'responsibility' 

Ms Borne has today (January 12) called on unions to recognise their "responsibility", adding "obviously there is a right to strike, a right to protest, but I think that it is also important not to penalise the people of France.

"This text is a text of progress. We have planned a recalculation of smaller pensions for those who have worked their whole lives. I will continue to work to convince [people]." 

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