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French Support Unions' Opposition To Streamlining Retirement Plans


Today a French rail strike enters its second month. Rail workers are protesting President Emmanuel Macron's plan to change the country's retirement system. That has led to significant travel disruptions. But despite that, a slight majority of the French still support the strikes. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: With the holiday lull over, Parisians are now back in the streets battling their way to work. Commuters waiting for a bus on a main avenue get ready to fight for a seat when it arrives. On Day 33 of the transport walkout, even strike-hardened Parisians are starting to crack. Sixty-year-old Jean Timoret (ph) says it can't go on much longer.

JEAN TIMORET: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I hope the government and the unions reach a compromise to stop the strike soon," he says, "because it's becoming stressful."

Mathieu Grall (ph) says getting to work from the suburbs takes planning.

MATHIEU GRALL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "You've got to get up earlier, be more organized and have a good pair of sneakers," he says.


BEARDSLEY: With the Metro paralyzed and streets snarled in traffic, people have been walking hours to get to their jobs. More than a million rides have been clocked on the city's public bike scheme, and electric scooter rentals are up 150%.

The strikers holding Parisians hostage are the train and Paris Metro drivers who benefit from perks they don't want to give up, like early retirement for a job that was once considered physical hardship. That's changed, says butcher Alain David, who's cutting up a piece of beef behind his counter. David's grandfather was a train driver before World War II.

ALAIN DAVID: (Through interpreter). Back then, it was a very hard job. He shoveled coal. And when he came home, he was black, and it was in his lungs. It's no longer the case. They just press buttons. So they got a change, but they don't want to give up their generous benefits.

BEARDSLEY: But for now, David is in the minority. Polls show a majority of the French support the striking train drivers who are seen as fighting a reform no one trusts. Macron says his retirement overhaul will streamline the country's 42 different retirement plans into one universal system that is based on points, not what job you have, and is more egalitarian.


LAURENT BERGER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: That's Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFD union, who spoke on the news last night. Berger says his union could support Macron's plan if he takes out the clause raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64.


BERGER: (Through interpreter) This new age is unfair because it will penalize those who started working young. Economists agree that it's unnecessary, and people are against it.

BEARDSLEY: Macron needs Berger's support because the other main union, the CGT, rejects his plan entirely. But the government says it won't budge on the retirement age, so it's been compromising in other ways to court the moderate unions and win public opinion. Firefighters, airline pilots and police get to keep their special retirement privileges.


BEARDSLEY: And when the national ballet danced in protest to "Swan Lake" on the steps of the opera house, they were allowed to keep their retirement age of 42, which was granted to opera dancers by Louis XIV.

This will be a crucial week. The prime minister meets with union leaders to try to work out a compromise, and the hard-line unions have called for more nationwide protests against Macron's reform. They're hoping the public will continue to support them.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "GHOSTS") 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.