Monday 23 October 2017

French pension protests cause little traffic disruption

French President Francois Hollande
French President Francois Hollande

Nicholas Vinocur

French trade union strikes against pension reforms won only limited support today, with most trains running in a sign President Francois Hollande's modest proposals were unlikely to stir broad opposition.

Hardline unions led by the CGT called for rallies and work stoppages in 180 locations across France where workers, civil servants and students will march to voice their anger over the reform and a wave of belt-tightening measures.

But much of France was functioning normally, with commuter trains running on schedule and only slight delays expected on inter-city links, suggesting there will be no repeat of the giant strikes that followed a 2010 pension reform.

Hardline FO union leader Jean-Claude Mailly, who will march in Paris later in the day, told France 2 TV that while workers were upset over some points of Socialist President Hollande's reform, he did not expect a "tidal wave" of opposition.

His counterpart at the CGT union, Thierry Lepaon, said that turnout for marches departing at 1200 GMT (2:00 pm local) would be "surprising". But neither labour chief called for the draft law, which is due to be presented in cabinet on Sept. 18, to be repealed.

"People are very worried," Lepaon told France Info radio. "It's important for workers to know they need to show their strength on social issues."

Hollande's reform, which is to be debated by parliament in the next month, aims to wipe out an annual deficit that will otherwise hit 20 billion euros ($26.5 billion)in 2010. Its main effect is to extend the pay-in period for pension contributions to 43 years by 2035 from 41.5 now.

European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn gave the reform passing marks in an interview with Le Figaro, but he urged Hollande to prove that it would not add to labour costs seen as too high already.

"This a reform 'a la francaise', it goes in the right direction," he told the centre-right daily.

Analysts have been more downbeat about the bill, however, saying it leaves deep structural problems untouched and misses an opportunity for a proper reform.

But Hollande, whose popularity remains low, seems to have met his goal of avoiding opposition in the street and setting up a smooth passage for the bill through parliament.

Despite a survey by pollster Harris Interactive showing that 56 percent of respondents support protests against the reform, France's moderate unions have not joined calls for protests, while centre-left parties are staying away.

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