French unions call for new protests as pension battle heats up

French union leaders have called for more midweek protests on January 14, 15 and 16 as they begin crunch meetings on Friday with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe over a hotly contested pension overhaul.

French unions call for new protests as pension battle heats up
Photo: AFP

Expectations of a breakthrough were low, however, after the government unveiled its draft law overnight that still contains a provision that would require people to work until 64 for a full pension — a red flag for unions.

The move came after a fourth day of mass demonstrations since December by opponents of a reform that aims to sweep away France's 42 separate pension schemes in favour of a single system.

READ ALSO: French government finally unveils pension reform bill but what's in it?

Some 452,000 people turned out across France for marches that were again marred by clashes with police and vandalism, with 27 people detained in Paris.

Rallies are again planned for Saturday and new protests have been called for three days starting next Tuesday.

“We’re calling for new protests to be organized on January 14, 15, 16, the details of which will be specified on Saturday evening depending on the success of Saturday’s interprofessional mobilisation”, said Eric Beynel, spokesperson for trade union group Solidaires.

“We have to step up our actions, and other sectors have to take up the baton,” Benoit Teste of the FSU teachers' union said late Thursday.

The hardline CGT union, the largest among public-sector workers, this week began blocking refineries and fuel depots, which have already caused fuel shortages in some areas.

Train services and Paris metro lines were again curtailed Friday as France's longest-ever rail strike entered its sixth week, with services at the main station in Marseille halted by dozens of strikers who descended on the tracks.

The government has said it is ready to compromise on the “pivot age” of 64, which it says is needed to erase a deficit that could reach €17 billion ($19 billion) by 2025.

That it two years beyond the official retirement age of 62, and people who retire beforehand would see their pensions docked.

But even the moderate CFDT union, France's largest, has demanded the pivot age be scrapped, though it still supports the creation of single points-based system.

It has urged the government to hold a separate “financing conference” with unions on possible alternatives to the pivot age, including higher contributions from employers.

The government's draft bill says measures for ensuring a balanced pensions budget will be discussed, but the pivot age will prevail if no agreement is reached by September 2021.

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French customs officers strike over job cuts

Customs officers across France will walk out on Thursday in protest at job cuts that unions say will “weaken the customs network”.

French customs officers strike over job cuts

The national strike on Thursday, March 10th is expected to lead to delays at ports, airports and on the Eurostar.

The strike, which will include a rally outside the National Assembly building in Paris, was called by the CFDT-Douane and has the support of other unions. 

A work-to-rule protest over pay and conditions by customs officers in 2019, under the shadow of Brexit, led to delays and disruption at airports, as well as ports including Calais and Dunkirk, and on Eurostar trains.

Unions are calling on the government to axe plans to switch responsibility for import duty collection to the Direction Générale des Finances Publiques by 2024, at the cost of 700 customs’ officer jobs – and, according to strikers, tens of billions of euros to State coffers.

“We are asking for the reforms to be stopped, mainly that of the transfer of taxation, which is disorganising the network with the elimination of nearly a thousand jobs,” CFDT-Douane’s secretary general David-Olivier Caron said.

The planned job cuts come after years of restructuring and streamlining that has seen thousands of positions disappear, the unions say, when customs fraud and smuggling is rising because of a lack of resources.