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Thousands in France strike and march in protest of raising the age of retirement


More than a million people took to the streets of French cities today to protest against President Emmanuel Macron's plans to raise the country's retirement age. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris, the large turnout suggests trouble ahead for the French government.


GUNS N' ROSES: (Singing) Knock, knock, knocking on...

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Place de la Republique, where the march kicked off in Paris, was completely packed, with a party-like atmosphere. Trucks blared music from loudspeakers. Giant balloons floated overhead. Protesters waved placards with slogans like, not one more year, one more month or one more day - of work that is.

ARNAUD ROURE: I don't want to die at my job.

BEARDSLEY: That's 47-year-old Paris metro worker Arnaud Roure, expressing a common sentiment. The major sticking point of this reform is it raises the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. Engineer Jean Marc Nicola tries to explain to an American why this is unacceptable.

JEAN MARC NICOLA: In the United States, you can retire before if you have enough money. But here in France, it's only one system. And so when we say age 64, it's really 64 for everybody - even for those who have begin very young.

BEARDSLEY: In its plan, the government makes some concessions to those who begin working early. Anyone who started at age 16 can retire at 58. But the plan gets rid of outdated and costly special retirement systems for certain categories, like train workers, who could retire as early as 52.


BEARDSLEY: When laying the plan out earlier this month to Parliament, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said there would also be special measures to help those with physically difficult jobs whose health had suffered from things like night work and heavy lifting. Borne called the reform fair.


BEARDSLEY: But 61-year-old construction worker Bachir Benamara disagrees. I meet him on a work site in Paris. Construction is not considered a difficult career, though his union has been pushing to change that classification. He says making it to 64 is hard.

BACHIR BENAMARA: (Through interpreter) We can't do it. At 60, we can barely hold out anymore. I have colleagues who had to leave at 57. Others have died from sickness and fatigue soon after retiring.

BEARDSLEY: But it's not just those with difficult jobs who are against raising the minimum age. Humanity's progress is so we can work less, not more, many people told me. Recent polls show 4 out of 5 French are against the reform.


BEARDSLEY: One of them is comedian Mathieu Ducrez. I meet him in the Paris metro this week. Even though these strikes disrupt train service and inconvenience him, he says they're for a good cause.

MATHIEU DUCREZ: We've just passed through like the pandemic and the war, so I think everyone is fed up. What's the meaning of life if you have to work all your life? To what?

BEARDSLEY: Reforming the French pension system was a campaign promise of Macron's. He was forced to abandon it during his first term because of the pandemic. It doesn't appear the task will be any easier now. The left and the far right are against it. And he's lost his super majority in Parliament, so any contentious measure will be difficult to get through. Macron was in Spain today, where he spoke about the reform.



BEARDSLEY: "This reform is democratic and fair," he said. "With people living longer, we have to enact it to save our system. We are open to dialogue, but we will proceed with determination."

Unions are determined to stop Macron, even if they have to continue striking and paralyze the country to do so. Today's massive turnout was a signal that the French people, for now, support them. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME OF OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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