- - Tuesday, December 17, 2019

PARIS — At a bus stop just north of downtown Paris, dozens of commuters shivered Tuesday in the morning cold, wondering if a bus would ever come.

It’s a scene that has become far too familiar for Parisians during the past 13 days of strikes over French President Emmanuel Macron’s determination to overhaul the country’s generous but convoluted pension system.

“I have to get to work,” said Arvin, 42, a cleaner who works for cash, visibly stressed. “I don’t make money if I don’t get to work. I have a family to support.”

One would-be passenger tried unsuccessfully to hail a taxi. Others waiting finally gave up and began walking, hoping they wouldn’t get trapped by the big demonstrations downtown.

In that mostly peaceful protest, hundreds of thousands of French rail workers, airline staff, doctors, teachers, judges and even opera singers walked off the job and onto the streets of Paris and other cities around the country Tuesday, trying to force Mr. Macron to back down in the latest attempt to pare back the country’s pricey social welfare safety net.

Across the city, schools closed their doors and year-end exams were canceled. Stores in many districts never opened and other businesses limped by with minimal staff. Numerous flights were canceled and public transportation came mostly to a halt, as people waited for trains or buses that didn’t come or tried unsuccessfully to get onto the jammed ones that did show up.

At the Eiffel Tower, a “Monument Closed” sign on a grass wall informed frustrated tourists that the city’s signature landmark was shuttered for the second time since the strikes began, The Associated Press reported. Tourism — in a country that regularly ranks No. 1 in U.N. rankings of the most international visitors — took a hit in late 2018 with the chaotic and violent yellow vest protests, and is likely to be hurt again by the long holiday season strikes.

Only two of the 16 lines on the Paris subway ran normally Tuesday, and just a quarter of the country’s renowned high-speed inter-regional trains were operating. International lines were also affected, the AP reported.

The big show of force Tuesday, which involved a walkout by all the unions for the first time this year, comes just before the start of the Christmas holidays: The unions hope the government will give in on its reform plan as it did in 1995 after three weeks of strikes just before Christmas in response to then-President Jacques Chirac’s attempt to scale back with the retirement system.

But the pressure was not all on Mr. Macron’s side.

The unions also worry that public support will drop as people tire of the disruptions and Christmas looms. So far, 54% of the French have a “positive opinion” of the strikes, according to a poll Monday by Ifop. But another survey showed that 55% say it’s not “acceptable” for the strikes to continue over the holidays, which essentially begin on Saturday and run until Jan. 6.

And there were signs Tuesday’s turnout was not all the protesters had hoped — the Interior Ministry said only about 615,000 people nationwide turned out to protest, a significant decline compared to Dec. 5, which had brought 806,000 people into the streets. The unions typically dispute the government numbers, saying they undercount the movement’s support.

Whoever wins the battle of wills, many ordinary French residents say they are unsure they will be able to celebrate.

“I don’t know if I will get home,” said Sandra, 40, a freelance designer, who is trying to go to Normandy for the Christmas holidays. She says she threw out the train tickets she bought months ago and will try her luck on a long-distance bus this weekend.

“It’s enough now,” she added, explaining that she had to cancel her holiday party last weekend because guests wouldn’t be able to get to her home, and has had many client meetings postponed until after the new year. “It’s hurt my business tremendously — and my private life.”

Targeting the safety net

The protests center around Mr. Macron’s “historic” plan to reform the pension system, one of the costliest in the developed world: It sets an official retirement age at 62, one of the lowest in Europe, which the government is trying to raise by two years. By contrast, Germany and the U.K. are raising their official retirement ages from 65 to 67 over the next decade in a bid to control costs and keep up with rivals globally.

Mr. Macron, a former investment banker, says that in order to avoid billions of dollars in deficits and make France competitive, the system has to change. He adds that the current system is essentially unfair to millions of workers: Retirement ages and benefits vary according to sector with some 42 different retirement schemes in place. Public-sector workers — about 20% of the workforce — have some of the most generous retirement benefits; some can retire with a full pension in their 50s. The new system envisions a single retirement scheme for everyone.

“It is deeply fair,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said of the plan. “We will put an end to special regimes … and will do so gently, and progressively.”

Opponents, however, say that the change will force workers to work longer and earn less, and challenge the French model of a worker-friendly economy. They accuse Mr. Macron of trying to destroy the hard-won gains of French workers in favor of the business elite and the rich.

“We have one of the best pension systems in the world, if not the best. However, the president decided, for ideological reasons, to destroy it,” one union, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), said in a statement.

“It’s a huge political mistake,” said Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, France’s largest union, of the retirement age hike.

The government will meet for talks with the unions Wednesday. Mr. Macron is coming under increasing pressure, especially because the architect of his reform plan, Jean-Paul Delevoye, resigned Monday after it came to light that he failed to disclose income from outside sources as required.

Many here say that the real problem is not economics but Mr. Macron himself: Polls show that 64% of the French actually support streamlining the pension system, if not the higher retirement age. But there is a deep reservoir of doubt here that Mr. Macron is the man to do it.

“The government’s ability to convince [people] has been reduced,” said an analysis by Ifop, a French pollster.

The polls bear that out: Only 35% of the French approve of Mr. Macron himself and just 30% believe the sometimes imperious president can tackle the problems of the country, according to a recent poll by Elabe. That was reflected in the front-page of Tuesday’s edition of the leftist daily Liberation which showed Mr. Macron and Mr. Delevoye, with the headline: Retirement — The Amateurs.

Jacques, who works for the public sector and was at the demonstration with his wife, said the strikes are about far more than the pension system, they are about economic justice. The disruption was necessary even if it hurts, he added.

“A period of chaos is needed,” he said. “Otherwise, the government will just wait until the protesters get tired and eventually go home as they always do. This way, the [leadership] is forced to listen.”

Ahmad Bejoui, a taxi driver said the strikes are necessary to prevent further rollbacks. “Where does it stop?” he asked. “They want to raise the age to 64, but next year they will want to raise it to 65 then 70.”

‘Insane’ disruptions

Still, many Parisians expressed frustration as the work stoppages and disruptions drag on.

“This is insane,” said Bernard Maupeau, a 67-year-old retiree. “We can’t have 20% of the country holding the rest of us hostage. A few more days of this and support for this will drop.”

“It’s my generation that did this,” he added, referring to the “extravagant benefit schemes” for pensioners. “But now we have to roll this back, we have to survive.”

So far, the government insists it will hold firm on its reform plan, which it plans to pass in January. Meanwhile, the unions are split on halting the strike for the holidays even as they vow to press ahead.

Many in Paris say they feel a sense of despair because there is no sense of when things will ever get back to normal. Right now, it’s anything but.

At clothing chain Mango’s Les Halles location, a lone clerk at the typically mobbed store was serving only a few customers. The Starbucks nearby announced it would close early. Some stores didn’t bother to open at all.

Shopkeepers are especially feeling the pain of the strike during what is usually the busiest shopping period of the year. Retail business over the past two weeks has dropped up to 60% compared to the same period last year.

“No one is here,” said Najed Sali, waving her arms around at her empty boutique in central Paris. “It’s a disaster for us.”

“It’s Christmas time, for goodness’ sake, but it doesn’t feel like it, no one is in a good mood,” she added, as fairy lights dressing the street to mark the holidays twinkled outside of her store. “It’s supposed to feel festive, fun. … Instead, we have this situation.”

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