France braces for ‘Black Thursday’ general strike over pension changes | France

France is braced for widespread chaos as unions and protesters call for a “Black Thursday” general strike this week against the government’s pension changes.

The day of action will be the first major test of the public’s resolve to force President Emmanuel Macron to back down over plans to raise the official retirement age, and his minority government’s resolve to stand up to them. Union leaders have called for a “massive mobilisation”.

Three-quarters of teachers are expected to strike, closing schools, and stoppages will disrupt transport and health services. Most trains will not run, the Paris metro has said its services will be heavily disrupted, and flights are reported to have been cancelled. Strikes have been announced by truck drivers, couriers and delivery companies. Oil refinery workers are also stopping work.

Staff at many theatres, music venues and banks are also expected to join the action, while police are bracing for protesters taking to the streets across the country.

A recent poll suggested the French public accepts that changes to the pension system are necessary, but not those proposed by the government. There is particular opposition to Macron’s plans to raise the official retirement age from 62 to 64 and to make workers pay into the pension system for longer. An Ifop poll for France’s main Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, found that 68% of those asked were hostile to the government’s measures.

Unions have overcome their often antagonistic relations to find a common cause, uniting for the first time in 12 years. Union leaders have said Thursday will be the “first day of mobilisation” in their struggle to get the pension plans dropped. They are demanding that the measures are immediately withdrawn, describing them as “unfair and unnecessary”.

Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT union, said he hoped “several million people” would be striking and demonstrating. “This is the first day. And when we say that, we mean there will be others … everywhere if possible,” he told France 2 television.

Under a 2007 law, transport workers are required to maintain a minimum service, but travellers have been warned this is not guaranteed. The transport secretary, Clément Beaune, said people should prepare for a “hard day” and suggested they work from home rather than struggle to get to offices.

Intercity trains are expected to be the worst hit, with warnings that none will run on Thursday. One in 10 regional trains and between one-third and one-fifth of TGVs are expected to operate. The Eurostar and Thalys are expected to run as normal but Lyria services to Italy will be seriously disrupted.

The government, which lost its majority in the general election last June, insists it will not back down and has asked workers not to paralyse the country. It will be counting on the conservative Les Républicains party to help push the measure through parliament. As a fallback, the government has said it will use a constitutional measure known as 49:3 to pass the legislation without a parliamentary debate or vote.

Successive French presidents have tried and failed to overhaul the pension system and raise the retirement age. Macron made it a plank of his 2017 election campaign and made his first push two years later, sparking protests and transport strikes. The changes were shelved when the Covid pandemic struck, but not abandoned. During his re-election campaign last year, Macron again pledged to overhaul the pension system, insisting the measures were necessary to “save” it from deficit.

In 1995, the then president, Jacques Chirac, and his prime minister, Alain Juppé, tried to introduce a universal system and end the many different “special regimes” enjoyed by public sector workers. Two million people took to the streets in almost a month of protests and the changes were dropped.

In 2010, another conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy, raised the retirement age from 60 to 62, with a full pension for those who had worked a minimum of 41.5 years, but only after a week of strikes, the blockading of oil refineries and nationwide protests.

Macron’s predecessor, the Socialist François Hollande, promised to tackle the deficit in the pensions system but ended up shying away from major changes after tens of thousands of people protested in Paris. He did pass legislation gradually increasing the number of years required to work to obtain a full pension – to 43 years by 2035 – mitigated by allowing those with physically demanding jobs to retire earlier.

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