Historic reforms and unending gridlocks

FRMacron2019By Jabeen Bhatti

Paris — At a bus stop just north of downtown Paris, dozens of people waited Tuesday shivering in the morning cold, wondering if a bus would come.

It's a scene that has become familiar over the past 13 days of strikes over pension reforms in France.

"I have to get to work," said Arvin, 42, a cleaner who works for cash, visibly stressed. "I don't make money if I don't get to work – I have a family to support."

One would-be passenger tried unsuccessfully to hail a taxi. Others waiting finally gave up and began walking, hoping they wouldn't get trapped by the big demonstration downtown.

In that mostly-peaceful demonstration, hundreds of thousands of French rail workers, airline staff, doctors, teachers, judges and opera singers walked off the job and onto the streets of Paris and other cities around France Tuesday, trying to force French President Emmanuel Macron to back off on his pension reform plan.

Across the city, schools closed their doors and end of year exams were cancelled. Stores in many districts never opened and other businesses limped by with minimal staff. Numerous flights were cancelled and public transportation came mostly to a halt, as people waited for trains or buses that didn’t come or tried unsuccessfully to get onto the jammed ones that did. Tourists, meanwhile, wondered when the Eiffel Tower would open again.

The big show of force Tuesday which involved a walkout by all the unions for the first time this year comes just before the start of the Christmas holidays: The unions hope the government will cave on its reform plan as it did in 1995 after three weeks of strikes just before Christmas in response to then-President Jacques Chirac's attempt to tinker with the retirement system.

Meanwhile, the unions also worry that public support will drop as people tire of the disruptions and Christmas looms. So far, 54 percent of the French have a "positive opinion" of the strikes, according to a poll Monday by Ifop. But another survey showed that 55 percent say it's not "acceptable" for the strikes to continue over the holidays, which essentially begin on Saturday and run until Jan 6.

Regardless, many are unsure they will be able to celebrate.

"I don't know if I will get home, said Sandra, 40, a freelance designer, who is trying to go to Normandy, a region north of Paris, for the Christmas holidays. She says she threw out the train tickets she bought months ago and will try her luck on a long-distance bus this weekend.

"It's enough now," she added, explaining that she had to cancel her holiday party last weekend because guests wouldn't be able to get to her home, and has had many client meetings postponed to 2020. "It's hurt my business tremendously – and my private life."

The protests center around President Macron's "historic" plan to reform the pension system, one of the costliest in the developed world: It sets an official retirement age at 62, one of the lowest in Europe, which the government is trying to raise by two years. By contrast, Germany and the UK are raising their official retirement ages from 65 to 67 over the next decade.

Macron says in order to avoid billions in deficits and make France competitive, the system has to change. He adds that the current system is essentially unfair to millions of workers: Retirement ages and benefits vary according to sector with 42 different retirement schemes in place. Public sector workers – about 20 percent of the workforce – have some of the most generous retirement benefits and some can retire in their 50s. The new system envisions a single retirement scheme for everyone.

"It is deeply fair," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said of the plan. "We will put an end to special regimes…and will do gently, and progressively."

Opponents, however, say that the change will force workers to work longer and earn less. They accuse Macron, a former banker, of trying to destroy the hard-won gains of French workers in favor of the business elite and the rich.

"We have one of the best pension systems in the world, if not the best. However, the president decided, for ideological reasons, to destroy it," one union, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), said in a statement.

"It's a huge political mistake," said Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, France's largest union, of the retirement age hike specifically.

The government will meet with the unions Wednesday. Macron is coming under increasing pressure, especially because his architect of the reform plan, Jean-Paul Delevoye, resigned Monday after it came to light that he failed to disclose income from outside sources as required.

Analysts say that the real problem is Macron himself: Polls show that 64 percent of the French actually support streamlining the pension system, if not the age hike. "The government's ability to convince (people) has been reduced," said an analysis by Ifop, a French pollster.

The polls bear that out: Only 35 percent of the French approve of Macron himself and just 30 percent believe Macron can tackle the problems of the country, according to a recent poll by Elabe. That was reflected in the frontpage of Tuesday's edition of the daily Liberation which showed Macron and Delevoye, with the headline, "Retirement – The Amateurs."

Jacques, who works for the public sector and was at the demonstration with his wife, says the strikes are about far more than the pension system, they are about economic justice. He added that the disruption was necessary even if it hurts.

"A period of chaos is needed," he said. "Otherwise, the government will just wait until the protestors get tired and eventually go home as they always do. This way, the (leadership) is forced to listen."

Ahmad Bejoui, a taxi driver said the strikes are necessary to prevent further rollbacks. "Where does it stop," he asked. "They want to raise the age to 64 but next year they will want to raise it to 65 then 70."

Still, many Parisians expressed frustration.

"This is insane," said Bernard Maupeau, 67, who is retired. "We can't have 20 percent of the country holding the rest of us hostage. A few more days of this and support for this will drop."

"It's my generation that did this," he added, referring to the "extravagant benefit schemes" for pensioners. "But now we have to roll this back, we have to survive."

So far, the government says it will hold firm on its reform plan, which it plans to pass in January. Meanwhile, the unions are split on halting the strike for the holidays even as they wow to continue afterward.

Meanwhile, many in Paris say they feel a sense of despair because there is no sense of when things will get back to normal. Right now, it's anything but.

At clothing chain Mango's usually mobbed Les Halles location, one clerk instead of the usual half-dozen manned the cashier station, serving only a few customers. Starbucks nearby announced it would close early. Some stores didn't bother to open.

Retailers are especially feeling the pain of the strike during what is usually the busiest shopping period of the year. Retail business over the past two weeks has dropped up to 60 percent compared to the same period last year.

"No one is here," said Najed Sali, waving her arms around at her empty boutique in central Paris. "It's a disaster for us."

"It's Christmas time, for goodness sake, but it doesn't feel like it, no one is in a good mood," she added, as fairy lights dressing the street to mark the holidays twinkled outside of her store. "It's supposed to feel festive, fun…instead, we have this situation."

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron says in order to avoid billions in deficits and make France competitive, the system has to change.
Credit: Courtesy of the official website of the France's President

Story/photo published date: 12/17/19

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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