PARIS - Tens of thousands of French took to the streets Friday for another day of protests as the government unveiled its controversial legislation to reform the country’s pension system.
Rock music and giant union balloons were out in force at the Place de la Republique, where protesters gathered to march to Concorde, the iconic square of the French Revolution. But their numbers were sizably down from last month's demonstrations. Representatives from moderate unions — now in negotiations with the government — were noticeably absent.
But students, lawyers and retirees were on the street. So were Paris Opera employees like Shirley Coquaire.
Coquaire operates heavy equipment at the opera. The current system allows her to retire at 57. Under the government’s plan, she said, she’ll retire much later and get a smaller pension.
Civil servant Nathalie Wiseur, 52, sported the red vest of the hardline CGT labor union. She’s been part of the pension protests since they started in early December.
Wiseur said it was important to keep protesting for the sake of future generations. She said she supported the current hardening of strike action to include blockages of highways and factories, as long as they’re peaceful.
The government plans to replace 42 separate pension schemes with a single point-based system and introduce a minimum pension. Health Minister Agnes Buzyn, charged with the reforms, said they would give all French the same pension rights.
The government argues the reforms are vital to respond to a growing and longer-living elderly population. But they have triggered France’s largest transport strike in history, which marked another day Friday.
Jean Grosset, who heads the Observatory for Social Dialogue at the Jean Jaures Foundation, a Paris think tank, said the government has done a bad job of communicating its reforms to the public. It may prevail, he said, but it will pay a price.
The government has backed down somewhat in some cases; for instance, it has scrapped the goal of changing the retirement age from 62 to 64. But other analysts believe it’s been largely successful in getting what it wants.
The bill next goes to parliament, which is controlled by President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party and is almost certain to approve it.
Hardline unions have vowed to keep protesting, but polls show public support is waning.
Parisienne Diane Le Tourneur said she was sick of the protests and strikes. She said they’re hurting businesses and France needs pension reforms. The demonstrators need to start thinking about what’s good for the country, she said, and less about themselves.