Over one million French workers took to the streets to protest a government plan to reform the nation’s pension plans, including a bump for the age of retirement.
“Now, the government finds itself with its back to the wall,” the leading French trade unions said in a joint statement. “Everyone knows that raising the retirement age only benefits employers and the wealthy.”
French President Emmanuel Macron intends to push the retirement age from 62 to 64 in an effort to keep the pension system financially viable, but unions say the change will threaten their rights.
The government says that pushing back the retirement age by two years will add 17.7 billion euros ($19.1 billion) in annual contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027, Reuters reported.
The unions have proposed alternatives to the plan, such as taxing the wealthy or mandating more payroll contributions from employers to finance the system, but Macron continues to insist that his plan is the best way to resolve the situation.
“This problem can be solved in a different way, through taxation. Workers should not have to pay for the public sector deficit,” said Laurent Berger, the leader of CFDT, France’s biggest labor union.
Macron, who was in Barcelona for a French-Spanish summit, acknowledged public discontent but said the reform remains necessary to “save” French pensions. The aging population and growing life expectancy in France, along with its commitment that everyone receives a state pension, has pushed the government to ensure the system remains solvent.
“We will do it with respect, in a spirit of dialogue but also determination and responsibility,” Macron said.
But the public strongly opposes the reform, with polls suggesting most people reject the proposal. The strikes on Thursday present the first public reaction to the plan, with disruptions to transport, schools and other public services as more than 200 rallies occurred across the country.
The Interior Ministry said more than 1.1 million people protested, with around 800,000 in Paris alone. Unions have claimed more than two million people took part in the protests nationwide.
The mostly peaceful protests resulted in small skirmishes with police, with several dozen protesters arrested, and police firing tear gas at some groups.
The unions have called for a second day of widespread strikes on Jan. 31 as they try to force Macron to back down from his plan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.