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Macron faces strikes as French unions flex muscles

French schools, trains and businesses are set to be affected on Thursday by the first major strike called since the re-election of President Emmanuel Macron in April, as unions push for wage hikes and the end of planned pension reform.

Macron faces strikes as French unions flex muscles
Protestors hold CGT union flags and protest to support French hospital staff members in front of the ministry of Health in June (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

The extent of disruption remains uncertain, however, with the strike a test for the CGT union behind the protests, which is seeking to build support for a lengthy battle with the centrist government.

Macron has approved wage hikes for civil servants and teachers and put in place one of Europe’s most generous anti-inflation safety nets that has capped energy prices for households and held down inflation.

But his insistence on raising the retirement age from its current level of 62 — one of his main re-election campaign pledges — has stirred up unions and other left-wing opponents and remains broadly unpopular around the country.

“We are against pushing back the age of retirement because we consider it an aberration when there are so many unemployed people in this country,”

Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, told the BFM broadcaster on Tuesday.

“Keeping people with work in their work means that people who haven’t got any can’t find it,” he added.

(You can listen to The Local France team discuss the coming strikes and protests in France in our new podcast episode below. Just press play or download it here for later.)

Despite warnings from allies about the risk of failure, Macron has tasked his government with hiking the retirement age from the current age of 62, one of the lowest in Europe, with changes set to take effect next year.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, the former investment banker has argued that pushing back pensions and getting more people into jobs are the only ways the state can raise revenue without increasing taxes.

His centrist party lost its majority in parliament in June, severely undermining his ability to push through changes.

Macron’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne nevertheless told AFP Thursday that the government would not seek to tack on the pension reform to a wider social security budget law as initially planned.

“There are important questions we want to open talks about” with other political parties, unions and employers’ groups, Borne said.

“We’re starting from the assumption that we’ll be able to hold a dialogue,” she added — although parts of the opposition completely reject any changes.

“If the president insists on declaring a social war on the people, we will respond with all the means at our disposal,” the parliamentary leader of the France Unbowed (LFI) political party, Mathilde Panot, tweeted on Wednesday.

Stoppages

Thursday’s strike has been called by the CGT, France’s second-biggest union, with backing from smaller partners Solidaires and FSU.

The influential CFDT and hard-left FO unions have declined to take part, underlining splits in the country’s once formidable labour movement which has struggled to stop Macron’s economic and social security reforms since he came to power in 2017.

Around one in 10 schools in Paris are expected to shut for the day on Thursday, while 300 will close in the southern Bouches-du Rhone area which includes Marseille.

“We can really see that teachers are fed up with their salaries… if on top of that, there’s the issue of pensions, it risks creating  some sparks,” said Guislaine David from the Snuipp-FSU union.

SNCF railways and the RATP metro system in Paris are also bracing for disruption to services, while employees of oil and gas giant TotalEnergies have been on strike since Tuesday.

Despite anger over the soaring cost of living, Macron is in a hurry to push through pension reform, which he first promised in 2017 before pausing in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to work for longer, but I don’t know anyone who thinks they are not going to work for longer,” a minister close to the president told AFP last week on condition of anonymity.

“Maybe I’m mistaken, but I’m not sure that the turnout will be as large as the unions and LFI are hoping for,” the minister said.

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POLITICS

French minister: US green plan should be ‘wake-up call’ for EU industry

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire on Friday said Washington's $430 billion plan to spur climate-friendly technologies in the United States must be seen as a wake-up call for Europe.

French minister: US green plan should be 'wake-up call' for EU industry

The EU “must be able to sweep in front of our own door” before worrying about the effects of the US climate plan on European industry, Le Maire told AFP in Washington, where he was part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s US state visit.

Even though the EU has already “changed its approach” on promoting green industry, the US climate plan must be seen as a “wake-up call” in the European Union, he added.

Le Maire’s comments came as EU countries have poured criticism on Washington’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), seeing it as anti-competitive and a threat to European jobs, especially in the energy and auto sectors.

Subsidies for green energy

The act, designed to accelerate the US transition to a low-carbon economy, contains around $370 billion in subsidies for green energy as well as tax cuts for US-made electric cars and batteries.

Macron on Wednesday slammed the plan’s “Made in USA” provisions as “super aggressive” for European businesses.

But at a joint press conference with Macron, Biden said that he and the French leader had agreed to “discuss practical steps to coordinate and align our approaches”, though he said he would not apologize for the US plan.

Biden added the IRA was never intended to disadvantage any US allies.

Threats of retaliatory measures

Last month, EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton threatened to appeal to the World Trade Organization and consider “retaliatory measures” if the United States did not reverse its subsidies.

Le Maire also criticized the EU’s own climate spending plans, arguing that they were too cumbersome and loaded with red tape.

“If the ambition is the same” as the Europeans, the United States relies on methods that “are simpler and faster”, he said.

“They put immediate and massive tax credits where we provide state aid (to specific projects) which sometimes take two years to be adopted and are too complex to implement,” said Le Maire.

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