Hundreds of French health workers have been calling for better working conditions in recent months, and were taking part in a nationwide strike to protest a government plan to overhaul the country's pension system. File photo by Yoan Valat/EPA-EFE
Jan. 19 (UPI) -- Tens of thousands of French workers walked off the job and took to the streets Thursday as part of a nationwide strike to protest President Emmanuel Macron's proposal to raise the age at which people can retire with benefits.
The protests were seen as a major test of Macron's policies that were meant to shore up the nation's economy amid a persistent inflation crisis and a population seething over high energy costs.
More than 200 demonstrations organized by dozens of trade unions were taking place in every corner of the country, with schools, public transportation and many health and utility services grinding to a standstill for what has been dubbed "Black Thursday."
It was the first time in 12 years that all the country's major unions mobilized under a common cause in what could turn out to be days or even weeks of national unrest. Police were also bracing for a massive protest in Paris throughout the day.
Union leaders said Thursday's demonstrations were only the "first day of mobilization" and suggested that they would keep up the pressure on Macron until he rescinded the plan.
"This is the first day. And when we say that, we mean there will be others ... everywhere if possible," Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT union, told French media.
Thursday's strikes impacted dozens of industries, with trains throughout the country not running, and many flights canceled after workers didn't show up for the day.
Public trains in urban areas were feeling the brunt of the strike, with most regional operations and some international connections shutting down service. Ferry services to and from Calais were suspended, with the P&O Ferries telling passengers to look for other options.
Transport workers are typically required by law to maintain a minimum level of service, but operators warned there were no guarantees of availability amid the strikes.
Police unions, theater employees, music venues and banks were also teaming up with the effort. Electricity workers also scaled back power supplies in some areas.
The Port of Dover was "still open with services to Dunkirk running as normal" but facilities were packed with stranded travelers.
Macron's proposal would raise the legal retirement age from 62 -- when most French workers typically stop working -- to at least 64 or 65 years, meaning all citizens would need to stay on the job for several additional years to qualify for a full pension.
The plan is deeply unpopular, with nearly 70% of French citizens opposing it. Polls show that a majority of young people who will not retire for decades also believe the measure is wrong for the country.
The French president has previously expressed a strong commitment to pension reform, calling it one of his most important pursuits due to an aging population in which millions of retirees currently draw $1,500 a month from the government, threatening to bankrupt the country over time.
The administration has indicated that it does not intend to back down, although Macron has made a few concessions already, including a guarantee that all workers will begin receiving a pension of at least $1,288 per month, which was a major demand from the opposition party.
Unions call the proposal unfair and unprecedented, saying it would lead to lower earnings and drastically upend the traditional mold of retirement, which is considered a birthright in France.
Previous efforts to overhaul the retirement system have failed after being met with fierce public protests.
The pension overhaul also faces an uphill battle in France's National Assembly, where Macron's Renaissance Party no longer holds a majority after last June's parliamentary elections.
The president would need to win considerable support from the new conservative majority to fulfill the reforms, and such a scenario was plausible since Macron's administration has pushed through several other reform bills with help from Republicans. However, some conservative lawmakers were not as optimistic about Macron's chances this time, given the contentious nature of pension reform.
The outcome on pension reform holds deep implications for Macron's other planned reforms and stands to impact his overall ability to govern during the remaining years of his second term.
There is some fear that Macron could become a lame-duck president if the retirement measure ultimately fails. Macron could invoke article 49.3 of the French constitution to bypass parliament on the issue, but doing so would risk a no-confidence vote that could result in his removal from office and tarnish his legacy.