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French ministers sign off on pension reforms amid large protests

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French President Emmanuel Macron’s contested pension reform law is on its way to parliament, after his government signed off on it on Friday.

As ministers approved the law in the Elysee Palace, thousands of protesters opposed to the reform marched towards the nearby Place de la Concorde.

Police were on high alert across the city, with vans and plainclothes motorbike officers stationed on bridges over the Seine and water cannon parked up outside the ornate Opera building.

The Paris metro, which only returned to normal operations a few days earlier, after a weeks-long strike against the reforms, was once again running a restricted service, and the Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors.

Goverment spokesperson Sibth Ndiaye said Macron told ministers that the decision was “an important moment of clarification” for his planned single national pension system, which he says will be fairer than the 42 existing professional schemes.

The centrist president also denounced “acts of violence and the radicalism of certain blockages,” after a series of wildcat power cuts around the country by striking electricity workers.

Macron has remained unyielding in the face of repeated protests about the reforms.

The demonstrations have been marred by vandalism and violence on the margins, as well as several high-profile incidents of alleged police brutality.

A first day of protests in December got more than 800,000 people on the streets, but numbers have been dwindling since then.

Opinion polls this week still showed public opinion sceptical about the reforms, with an Elabe poll for BFMTV, published on Wednesday, showing 69 per cent of respondents saying that Macron should pay more heed to opposition.

An Ifop poll on Sunday for Le Journal du Dimanche showed 51 per cent of respondents expressing sympathy for the strikes and protests, with 33 per cent opposed.

Hardline unions fear that the reform will disadvantage workers with uneven career histories, and force almost everyone to work longer.

For some, such as train drivers, who can now retire at 52, it would mean working much longer.

One issue the government has offered to compromise on is a plan to rise the standard age for retirement on a full pension from 62 to 64.

The proposal to raise the age had led moderate unions, which are not in principle opposed to the new single pension system, to also come out against the reform proposals.

Pensions commissioner Laurent Pietraszewski said talks on that issue with unions and employers would start on Thursday.

The social partners would have three months to come up with an alternative way of ensuring that the country’s pension system can balance its books by 2027, he added.

However, the government has effectively ruled out doing that by either raising pension contributions or reducing payments.

With many workers still uncertain about how the reform will impact their own pensions, Pietraszewski said that an online simulator currently illustrates how it will work for 65 modelled careers.

However, it will not be possible to create an individualised simulator until the law has passed parliament and all the details are known, he said.

Edited By: Fatima Sule/Wale Ojetimi

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