In France Pensioners, health aides kick off Macron reform protests

Thousands of retirees had already taken to the streets in January against higher taxes on their pensions, imposed to help offset lower social security charges for private-sector employees.

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"70 years old and in the street" reads a sign held up by one protester in Marseille play

"70 years old and in the street" reads a sign held up by one protester in Marseille

(AFP)
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Pensioners and retirement home workers staged protests across France on Thursday, kicking off a series of strikes against President Emmanuel Macron's reforms.

Thousands of retirees had already taken to the streets in January against higher taxes on their pensions, imposed to help offset lower social security charges for private-sector employees.

"We're not the gilded generation," said Michel Salingue of the FGR-FP union, adding that the average monthly French pension stood at 1,300 euros ($1,600).

"We've contributed more than our share already," he said.

But Macron, who has already overcome opposition to an overhaul of France's rigid labour laws and sharp cuts on wealth and capital gains taxes, shows no sign of backing down.

Speaking in Tours in central France on Wednesday, Macron said he "took responsibility" for the reforms while reiterating his call for "an effort to help young workers".

"Some people will complain and don't want to understand, but that's France," he said.

Staff from hundreds of state-run retirement homes across France also protested Thursday against low pay, a severe shortfall in staffing levels and unsanitary conditions in many establishments.

The government is pursuing a financing reform that would cut funding for the retirement homes by up to 25 percent, even as unions want the state to commit 7-10 billion euros ($8.6-12.3 billion) for hiring an additional 200,000 people.

"We can no longer accept that senior citizens are not getting showers regularly," said Mireille Stivala of the CGT, one of France's largest unions.

Season of strikes?

The government says it has little room for manoeuvre as it moves to cut France's deficit and streamline costly public services, a main platform of Macron's election campaign last year.

But pressure could mount in coming days as rail workers, long considered France's "working-class nobility", prepare a major strike over plans to strip new recruits of jobs-for-life and other benefits as part of an overhaul of the state operator SNCF.

The action is set to begin on March 22 during a one-day walkout by rail unions alongside other civil servants protesting low pay and the increased use of subcontractors and part-time contracts.

Rail workers have also threatened to launch a wave of rolling strikes not seen since 1995, when SNCF workers spearheaded weeks of protests against retirement overhauls that eventually prompted the government to back down.

But it may be just the first skirmish in a long battle of wills, with top officials in Macron's centrist party saying recently that they want to push through nearly all of the president's reform agenda by the end of this year.

Other controversial plans include overhauling unemployment benefits and a constitutional reform that would reduce the number of seats in parliament by a third.

Also next week, pilots at Air France, in which the state owns a minority stake, are planning a one-day strike Friday to demand a six percent pay rise, saying they should share in the airline's improved earnings after a wage freeze imposed since 2011.

Ten Air France unions, covering everyone from pilots and flight attendants to ground staff, will stage a follow-up strike on March 30.

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