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France gears up for ‘hellish’ day of pension protests

France's government was facing a day of strikes and protests on Thursday set to disrupt transport and schooling across the country as workers oppose a deeply unpopular pensions overhaul.

France gears up for 'hellish' day of pension protests
A metal curtain closes off access to Montparnasse metro station in Paris on January 19, 2023 ahead of strike action. (Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)

The changes presented by President Emmanuel Macron’s government last week would raise the retirement age for most people to 64 from 62 and increase the years of contributions required for a full pension.

France’s trade unions immediately called for a mass mobilisation, which is to be the first time they have united since 12 years ago, when the retirement age was hiked to 62 from 60.

The strikes are expected to bring much of the capital’s public transport to a standstill and halt a large proportion of trains throughout France.

Many parents will have to look after their children as 70 percent of primary school teachers are expected to strike and many schools will close entirely for the day, according to the main teachers’ union.

Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-left CGT union, said he hoped for “lots of people in the street and lots of people on strike”.

He told broadcaster France 2 that he expected many in the private sector to join with public-sector workers, with “in certain big companies, striker rates that should hover around 60, 70 percent”.

The unions are hoping for over a million demonstrators in more than 200 cities across France.

French media have reported that police are making plans for 550,000 to 750,000 protesters, including 50,000 to 80,000 in Paris.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Wednesday that 10,000 police and gendarmes would be on alert, more than a third of them in the capital, including to look out for some 1,000 demonstrators who could be “violent”.

Transport Minister Clement Beaune has warned it will be “a hellish Thursday”, urging all those who can to work from home.

With Paris metros and buses in disarray, basketball fans could encounter trouble as they try to reach the sold-out NBA Paris Game between the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls in the northeast of the city.

Macron in Barcelona 

Opinion polls show that around two-thirds of French people oppose raising the retirement age, a move that comes amid high inflation and with the country still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Macron’s last attempt at pension reform in 2019, aborted a year later when Covid-19 hit Europe, prompted the longest strike on the Paris transport network in three decades.

The 45-year-old centrist vowed to press ahead with plans to push back the retirement age during his successful re-election campaign last year, pointing to forecasts that the system could fall into heavy deficits at the end of the decade.

France’s current retirement age is one of the lowest in the European Union.

But unions are suspicious of the new overhaul, eager to protect those who started working at a young age or have been toiling in  physically demanding jobs.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has defended the reform, still to be debated in parliament, as a way to ensure more “justice” for retirees. 

“Four out of 10 French people, the most fragile, those of the most modest means, those who have tough jobs, will be able to retire before 64 years old,” she has told parliament. 

Macron, however, will not be in France on Thursday.

He and nine ministers will be attending a French-Spanish summit in Barcelona, though Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt will stay behind.

In 2010, more than a million people protested against the plan to raise the retirement age to 62, according to police figures, but the bill proposed by the right-wing government of president Nicolas Sarkozy was passed anyway.

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POLITICS

Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers – French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

From coffee runs to rugby tickets and professional photos - France's election financing body has revealed some of the items it has refused to reimburse from the 2022 presidential race.

Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers - French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

Spending on the election trail is tightly regulated in France, with maximum campaign spends per candidate as well as a list of acceptable expenses that can be reimbursed.

In France the State pays at least some of the election campaign costs, with the budget calculated according to how many votes the candidate ends up getting. 

READ MORE: 5 things to know about French election campaign financing

On Friday, the government body (la Commission nationale des comptes de campagne et des financements politiques – or CNCCFP) released its findings for the 12 candidates who ran in the April 2022 presidential campaign. 

All of the candidates had their accounts approved, but 11 out of the 12 were refused reimbursement on certain items. Here are some of the items that did not get CNCCFP approval;

Rugby tickets 

Jean Lassalle – the wildcard ‘pro farmer’ candidate who received about three percent of votes cast in the first round of the 2022 election – bought “19 tickets to attend a rugby match” according to the CNCCFP’s findings. The organisation said it would not be reimbursing the tickets and questioned “the electoral nature of the event”. 

The total cost of the tickets was €465 (or €24.50 each).

Too many coffees

Socialist candidate, and current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo reportedly spent at least €1,600 on coffee for her team during the campaign.

According to the CNCCFP, however, the caffeine needed to keep a presidential campaign running did not qualify under the country’s strict campaign financing rules.

Too many stickers

Hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s was told that the 1.2 million stickers that were bought – to the tune of €28,875 – to advertise the campaign would not be reimbursed. Mélenchon justified the purchasing of the stickers – saying that in the vast majority of cases they were used to build up visibility for campaign events, but CNCCFP ruled that “such a large number” was not justified. 

Mélenchon was not the only one to get in trouble for his signage. Extreme-right candidate Éric Zemmour was accused of having put up over 10,000 posters outside official places reserved for signage. The same went for the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, who decided to appeal the CNCCFP’s decision not to reimburse €300,000 spent on putting posters of her face with the phrase “M la France” on 12 campaign buses.

Poster pictures

Emmanuel Macron – who won re-election in 2022 – will not be reimbursed for the €30,000 spent on a professional photographer Soazig de la Moissonière, who works as his official photographer and took the picture for his campaign poster. 

The CNCCFP said that Macron’s team had “not sufficiently justified” the expenditure.

Expensive Airbnbs

Green party member Yannick Jadot reportedly spent €6,048 on Airbnbs in the city of Paris for some of his campaign employees – an expense that the CNCCFP said that public funds would not cover.

Translating posters

The campaign finance body also refused to reimburse the Mélenchon campaign’s decision to translate its programme into several foreign languages at a cost of €5,398.

The CNCCFP said that they did not consider the translations to be “an expense specifically intended to obtain votes” in a French election.

Best and worst in class

The extreme-right pundit Zemmour had the largest amount of money not reimbursed. Zemmour created a campaign video that used film clips and historic news footage without permission and also appeared on CNews without declaring his candidacy – because of these two offences, CNCCFP has reduced his reimbursement by €200,000. He has been hit with a separate bill of €70,000 after he was found guilty of copyright infringement over the campaign video. 

The star pupil was Nathalie Arthaud, high-school teacher and candidate for the far-left Lutte Ouvriere party, who apparently had “completely clean accounts”. A CNCCFP spokesperson told Le Parisien that if all candidate accounts were like Arthauds’, then “we would be unemployed”.

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