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Nationwide Protest in France Over Pensions as Talks Continue

A picture of French President Emmanuel Macron burns during a demonstration in Lyon, central France, Jan. 9, 2020.
A picture of French President Emmanuel Macron burns during a demonstration in Lyon, central France, Jan. 9, 2020.

French rail workers, teachers, doctors, lawyers and others joined the fourth nationwide day of protests and strikes on Thursday to denounce President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to overhaul the pension system.

As the government and unions pushed on with crucial negotiations about the changes, street protests were staged in Paris and other French cities, and the railway strikes that began Dec. 5 entered their 36th day.

The Paris march, which unions said comprised 370,000 demonstrators, started from the Republique square in the city center and was accompanied by a large police presence. The Elysee presidential palace was barricaded as protesters were due to head toward the area. Police said by late afternoon that they had made over a dozen arrests.

The Eiffel Tower was shut as employees joined the protest movement. Paris metro traffic was severely disrupted, except for one automatic line running normally.

The national rail company, SNCF, said about a third of its workers were on strike Thursday. Three high-speed trains out of five were running. Regional trains were also affected and many schools were closed.

Unions have also called on workers to block road access to major ports, including in the southern city of Marseille.

Philippe Martinez, head of hard-left CGT union, said “there are many people on strike” yet the government doesn’t appear “willing to discuss and take into account the opinion of unions.”

Talks between the government and labor unions resumed Tuesday but no compromise has yet been reached. A new round of negotiations focusing on the financing of the new pension system is scheduled for Friday. Macron has asked his government to find a quick compromise with reform-minded unions.

So far, the government is sticking to its plan to raise the full retirement age from 62 to 64, the most criticized part of the proposals.

The changes aim to unify France’s 42 different pension schemes into a single one. Under specific pension schemes, some people, like railway worker, are allowed to take early retirement. Others, like lawyers and doctors, pay less tax.

Unions fear people will have to work longer for lower pensions, and polls suggest at least half of French people still support the strikes.