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Protests Over Pension Changes In France


France is used to labor strikes. But the situation right now is exceptional. Transport workers, teachers, health care workers - these are just some of the folks walking off their jobs today. Even the Eiffel Tower is closed. People are protesting the changes that President Emmanuel Macron wants to make to the country's pension system.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is standing on a street corner in Paris with the latest. Hi, Eleanor.


MARTIN: What's going on? Everything's shut down. How's it feel?

BEARDSLEY: Well, you know, I expected to come out and find complete chaos and pandemonium, and it's exactly the opposite. I'm in front of a train station at a busy intersection - usually. Of course, the train station is shut. It feels like a Sunday morning, not a weekday morning. And I think that people were so worried - they were bracing for so much paralysis that they stayed home, or maybe they're, you know, striking.

Eighty percent of the train service is out today. And I was watching TV earlier, and they said on a normal day, there's a hundred miles of traffic jams on the beltway around the city. And today there's just 15, so everything is moving smoothly.

However, we do see the protest marchers gathering at the Gare du Nord. The protest march starts in a couple hours, and so that could be a big march. But right now the city's very calm.

MARTIN: OK. So explain this plan - Macron's plan about pensions that's got everyone so upset.

BEARDSLEY: Well, actually, he hasn't even done it yet. He's in consultations with the unions to do it. But this is sort of like a warning shot - you know, the unions against Macron. Be careful.

You know, France has a complicated system. Everybody pays in, you know, for the payout. But people are living longer, and there are fewer workers supporting each retiree. So it needs adjusting. It needs reforming. People know this. But they say his reform is bad and unfair. You know, he wants people to work longer. People do not want to have to work longer.

But you know, Rachel, more deeply, it reflects just an anger and a dislike of Macron in society. He basically has no political opposition in the Parliament, but there's broad and deep anger against him after the yellow vest protests last year. He is authoritarian. He's arrogant. So I think it's reflecting some of that. Everybody's joined in sort of, like, to go against him.

MARTIN: Right. So what does that mean for him? I mean, you referenced the yellow vest movement. This was about a fuel tax, and then it became this broader thing. There's a lot of ire directed at Emmanuel Macron right now.

BEARDSLEY: Exactly. Now, let's be clear. These strikes today are organized by the unions. These are the unions; they're not the yellow vests. But the unions are hoping that the yellow vests will join in and make it a massive, you know, strike and protest that will go on and on. Everyone is saying today, we don't know how long this is going to last. Is it just today? In fact, the quietness today - that could be an ominous sign that it's going to go on for the duration. So they want it to go on.

And I spoke with Edwy Plenel, who is head of a news site, Mediapart. And here's what he told me.

EDWY PLENEL: Macron has no political opposition, really. But there is a very strong opposition in the society - very hard, very strong, very multiple (ph) in the society.

MARTIN: I mean, lastly, Eleanor, France is known for its strikes. How successful are they typically?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Rachel, everyone is comparing this to 1995, which was the mother of them all. That was when they - for three weeks, there was basically no transport. Everyone went to work on bike and on foot, but they were in solidarity and together. And - guess what - it was against a retirement pension reform, and they brought it down. And actually, the prime minister at the time, Alain Juppe, he really never quite recovered after that.

MARTIN: All right. We'll see what happens here. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley with us from the streets of Paris. Eleanor, thank you.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.