French Public Sector Strikes Hit New Heights

French workers from various public sectors walked off their jobs on Tuesday in protest against plans released by the national government to raise the retirement age to 64. Hundreds of separate protests were expected in Paris and around the country, with organizers hoping for their biggest demonstration yet against President Emmanuel Macron’s legislation. The bill is currently under debate in the French Senate.

Unions had threatened to freeze the French economy by stopping work across multiple sectors, most visibly an open-ended strike at the national rail authority. As a result, commuters packed into rare trains heading for Paris from the southern suburbs before dawn. At the same time, the government encouraged people to work from home if their jobs allowed.

The French civil aviation authority asked airlines to reduce scheduled flights by up to 30% at major French international airports. In addition, trains to Germany and Spain came to a halt, while those to and from Britain were reduced by a third, according to the rail authority.

The proposed reform would raise the official pension age to 64. It would also require 43 years of service time before full pension benefits accrue. Opinion polls suggest most French voters oppose the bill, and left-wing lawmakers say companies and the wealthy should pitch in more to finance the pension system.

Paris was expected to bear the brunt of the strikes and protests. Most lines on the Paris metro will only run for the time being during peak hours, according to RATP, the city’s transport agency. The primary education trade union, FSU, said 120 schools would close for the day on Tuesday, as at least 60% of primary school teachers were expected to be on strike in the French capital.

Unions and opposition parties encouraged people to protest in the country’s main cities, hoping to “bring France to a halt.”

This is the sixth time this year that French schools, airports, and trains will face heavy disruption as workers protest the government’s plans to raise the retirement age for most workers. The reforms have angered workers when living costs are rising. The government has said the pension legislation is necessary to tackle a funding deficit.

However, if there is no support from opposition lawmakers, Macron’s government could turn to Article 49.3 of the French constitution, a mechanism it has used several times to push through budget-related bills without putting them to a parliamentary vote.

The CGT, France’s biggest union, called for the mobilizations to continue and grow until the government listens to workers. Philippe Martinez, the union’s secretary-general, said that the unions are “moving up a gear” and expects “the mobilizations will continue and grow until the government listens to workers.”

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