French strikes: Protests test plan in France to raise retirement age

​French workers angry over proposed changes to retirement rules are halting high-speed trains, disrupting electricity supplies and taking to the streets in a day of nationwide strikes and protests seen as a major test for Emmanuel Macron and his presidency.

People would have to work longer before receiving a pension under the new rules, with the nominal retirement age rising from 62 to 64.

In a country with an ageing population and growing life expectancy where everyone receives a state pension, Mr Macron's government says the reform is the only way to keep the system solvent.

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Unions argue the pension overhaul threatens hard-fought rights and propose a tax on the wealthy or more payroll contributions from employers to finance the pension system.

A disguised protestor holding a placard reading "let's defend our very special pension regimes" poses before a demonstration in Paris. Picture: AP Photo/Lewis Joly

Most French people oppose the reform, polls suggest.

More than 200 rallies were expected around France on Thursday, including a large one in Paris involving all France's unions.

Police unions opposed to the retirement reform also took part. Those who were not protesting had braced for potential violence amid fears extremist groups would join the demonstrations.

A majority of trains around France were cancelled, including some international connections, according to the SNCF national state-owned railway company.

Travelers walk in the deserted Gare du Nord train station in Paris. Picture: AP Photo/Lewis Joly

About 20 per cent of flights out of Paris's Orly Airport were cancelled and airlines warned of delays.

Electricity workers pledged to reduce power supplies as a form of protest and some 70 per cent of nursery and primary school teachers said they had refused to work on Thursday, according to French media reports.

Student unions were expected to join the protests by blocking access to some schools.

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The French government is formally presenting the pension Bill on Monday and it heads to Parliament next month.

Its success will depend in part on the scale and duration of the strikes and protests.

Protracted strikes met Mr Macron's last effort to raise the retirement age in 2019 and he eventually withdrew it after the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

The demonstrations came as Mr Macron met with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to strengthen relations between the European neighbours by signing a friendship treaty.

Mr Sanchez and Mr Macron signed the Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation between their countries at a one-day summit in Barcelona.

Both governments consider this a diplomatic bond of the highest order.

Spain only has a similar treaty with Portugal; France has them with Germany and Italy. The leaders are seeking stronger positions inside the European Union.

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Mr Macron is profiling himself as the continent’s leading politician to fill the void of former German chancellor Angela Merkel, while Mr Sanchez wants Spain to have a more influential role in Brussels following the United Kingdom’s exit from the bloc.

After years of cordial, but sometimes distant relations between France and Spain, the two have grown closer recently.

Spain, France and Portugal have agreed on a major undersea pipeline to transport hydrogen from the Iberian Peninsula to France and eventually the rest of Europe. The pipeline, dubbed H2Med, will run from Barcelona to Marseille.

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