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Dispute over pension reform: Six French people report how they deal with the mega strike – reportage page

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Almost six weeks of permanent strike and no end in sight. The dispute over pension reform paralyzes France. Several professional groups, lawyers, teachers and railway workers have joined the unions' reputation. The labor dispute has been the toughest for more than 30 years. In Paris in particular, he brought citizens to the edge of their patience

THE commuter, ANNE VERSIEUX

Anne Versieux left the pumps with the higher heels in the closet. It could be that she has to walk again in between. With her family of four, she lives in Marly-le-Roi, a suburb 20 kilometers west of Paris. The strike, which has been putting the residents of the French capital and the surrounding area to the test for more than 40 days, is having a hard time. "It's tiring," she says. It normally takes an hour to get to work near the Eiffel Tower with the “Transilien”, the local train, and the metro.

Anne Versieux, commuterPhoto: Albrecht Meier

"Trafic perturbé" – restricted traffic – reports the app "Citymapper" this morning. When she reaches the transfer station in the office town of La Défense at dawn, a mass of gray-black-clad commuters stands in front of the stairs to the metro like a wall. Nobody complains, some take pictures of the crowd. "This is how they document to their employers why they had to be late," says Anne Versieux of the explanation.

The 53-year-old works as head of marketing for the newspapers "Les Echos" and "Le Parisien". When the strike began – lawyers, teachers, but most notably railroad workers in local and long-distance transport – and which has now lasted longer than any other industrial struggle in France for more than 30 years – she worked from home , Since last weekend, the conflict between the government and the unions, which want to force the head of state Emmanuel Macron to withdraw or at least to change the controversial pension reform, has entered a new phase. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has made the offer to initially reduce the planned increase in the retirement age from 62 to 64 years.

Since then, traffic has normalized somewhat, but the metros continue to stand still outside of peak hours. "Many work appointments outside the home must therefore fall flat," says Versieux.

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Despite the inconvenience that the strike brings, the Parisians are stoic about the strikes. During the talks in the cafes and restaurants, “la grève”, the strike and the consequences, is the dominant theme – but you hardly hear anyone who loudly scolds radical unions like the CGT or the left “Force Ouvrière”, who are for are responsible for the outstanding debts at the State Railways SNCF and the Parisian transport company This is how Anne Versieux feels. She certainly believes that the SNCF train drivers' pension privileges should be abolished, as Macron's reform provides. On the other hand, she recently heard of a statistic that 44 percent of those who become unemployed in France at the age of 55 cannot find a job afterwards. "I would like to continue working," she says. But she is skeptical about the government's consideration of letting people work longer to compensate for the dilapidated pension funds: "What do you do between the ages of 55 and 65?" She asks. She says: Is there enough work for these people?

THE PERMANENT STRIKE, STÉPHANE PETIT

At the top of the “École Militaire” metro station near the Martian field, an elderly man is struggling. While he is folding a small white bike, young people are circling him with the green and white e-scooters, which are omnipresent in the cityscape, a few meters further an employee of the municipal transport company is collecting for the strike fund. A passerby puts ten euros in the box and says: "Hold on!"

Stéphane Petit continues on strike. For how much longer?Photo: Albrecht Meier

On the other side of the square, trade unionists are preparing to march to a rally across Paris. Stéphane Petit stands under a balloon of the CGT union. The train driver has been present on every day of the strike since the beginning of December 5th. This morning, too, he came to the general assembly of his colleagues at Montparnasse station, and again they spoke out in favor of an extension of the outstanding amount. "We are on strike for the entire French population," says Petit.

The government argues that the job of train driver is no longer as strenuous as it was 40 years ago and that the regulations for railway workers that make early retirement must therefore also be abolished. "I can't judge that because I wasn't born back then," says the 38-year-old Petit.

When he started at SNCF at the age of 18 after graduating from high school, he initially drove empty trains to Montparnasse at night. Today he drives regional trains from Paris to Le Mans in the northwest and Granville in Normandy. That means getting up at two in the morning once a week. It often also means spending the night at the other end of the route. According to the current regulation, he could retire at the age of 52. "The life expectancy of a railroader is less than that of a manager," he says.

"Every profession has its own peculiarities," Petit replies when asked why he is in favor of maintaining the current nested pension system with its 42 special funds. A universal point system, as Macron wants to introduce it, has to be off the table.

Every day he doesn't get on one of his locomotives means a financial loss for him. He has had to forego a monthly salary that is a little less than EUR 3,000 net since the strike began. How long will he keep going? Stéphane Petit shrugs.

THE OPINIONIST, EMMANUEL RIVIÈRE

The city highway, the "Périphérique", has heavy traffic as usual. Up on the fifth floor of the Kantar polling institute, you can hardly hear any of the noise below, Emmanuel Rivière smiles when he says: “It would be a mistake to assume that the discussion about pension reform is purely rational. Those who strike want to end this strike with their heads held high. "

Emmanuel Riviére researches the opinion of the French.Photo: Albrecht Meier

Rivière has been responsible for numerous studies on the political landscape in France. The 51-year-old is particularly struck by the contradictions in the surveys of the current permanent strike: on the one hand, people want the annoying state of emergency to finally come to an end. But on the other hand, since the beginning of the strike in early December, a majority of respondents have always stated that they support the strikers. "There is a general fear that Macron's reform will result in excessive losses," he says. "Many secretly think: the strikers do the work for us."

Rivière explains that the cliché that his compatriots live like God in France and can no longer afford a sustainable pension system is no longer true. “The French also retire later and later. They used to retire at the age of 60, today on average at the age of 62. “But compared to other European countries, this is still an early retirement. Again Rivière smiles at the inconsistency of the French: “People generally understand very well that there is a problem with the financing of the whole system. But nobody wants to give anything individually. "

For Macron, the pension reform is the crucial project in his presidency, which will last until 2022. That is why, in view of his electorate, the President cannot afford to withdraw the amendment entirely. What the strike means for the political future of the president, according to Rivière, cannot yet be predicted. "Macron is losing in the polls, but its opponents are not growing." This also applies to Macron's worst adversary, the chairman of the far-right Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen.

THE STRIKE PROFITER, WALID
He cannot complain about the strike. Walid, 32 years old and an Uber driver, has had customers for weeks that were not to be expected before the strike. At Cité Universitaire station, where the RER express train stops, he starts his Citroën and starts telling stories. On Christmas Eve, Walid drove an elderly gentleman from Paris to Orleans because the man wanted to spend the party with his family. He hadn't seen his son for two years. "I felt sorry for the man," the driver recalls. At the end of the trip there was a generous tip as a Christmas present. However, he did not accept the family's invitation to stay for dinner.

Walid is an Uber driver. He cannot complain about the strike. It gives him more passengers.Photo: Albrecht Meier.

However, Walid is not enjoying the traffic jams that the strike entails. He picks up his cell phone and looks for a ride that has almost driven him to despair recently. "Here," he says, "from the fifth arrondissement to Blanc-Mesnil". 22 kilometers. The trip lasted two hours, but in the end no more than 45 euros had jumped out for him. "It's not worth something like that," he says.

Still, he doesn't want to sue, strike or not. Walid came to France from Tunisia in 2008, initially staying with relatives in Lyon. He couldn't find a job. This has changed with Uber for almost three years. Even if Walid has to provide for his own pension and, unlike the train drivers at the SNCF, he probably won't be able to stop working when he is in his fifties, he doesn't want to criticize the strikers too violently. "Everyone has the right to their opinion," he says.

THE POLITICIAN, PIEYRE-ALEXANDRE ANGLADE
The meeting takes place in the "Brasserie Le Bourbon", a restaurant near the National Assembly. Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade, Member of Parliament, has just met with colleagues from his group "La République en Marche" – the group that supports President Macron. The 33-year-old has a certain understanding that the pension reform is causing unrest among many of his compatriots. "This is very logical, because we are changing from a well-known system to a completely new regulation," he says. The previous system, which is organized according to occupational groups, is to be replaced by a general point regulation in which every euro paid into the pension fund has the same effect when the pension is paid out. "This is not about reform, but about starting a new company."

En Marche politician Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade defends Macron's reform plans.Photo: Albrecht Meier

Despite opposition to the reform, Anglade sees no reason to move away from the new pension system in principle. The existing system is deeply unfair, especially for low earners or women with short careers, he says. In addition, the fears are unjustified that pension claims in old age will soon decrease due to Macron's reform. According to the legal text, it is envisaged that pension benefits will continue to account for no less than 14 percent of France's gross domestic product in the future.

Local elections are due in March, and the presidential party “La République en Marche” could get the receipt for its zeal for reform. Anglade doesn't want to be put off by this. “When Macron became president in 2017, many people thought that 'La République en Marche' was only a temporary phenomenon,” he says, “these people are wrong.”

THE PENSIONER, CLAUDE MARILL
Claude Marill stands in front of the town hall of the 20th arrondissement in northeast Paris. The man with the blue flat cap is the oldest in a group of men and women who have gathered here to protest against the pension reform. The activists want to distribute leaflets to the staff inside the town hall, and some succeed. When Claude Marill wants to go through the gate, security officials have already noticed this and are blocking his way. "This shows that the state is afraid of us," says the 82-year-old.

Claude Marill, 82, is a pensioner. He is fighting Macron's plans.Photo: Albrecht Meier

Marill worked for this state for many years. Before retiring in 1998 at the age of 60, he worked as a teacher and youth worker. When calculating his pension, his salary was taken as the basis for his last six months of work, which inevitably resulted in a lavish pension for Marill. His net pension is 1980 euros. "That's a lot," he says himself. Macron wants to abolish the civil service pension calculation, where only earnings at the end of the career are decisive.

Marill says he has been to all major demonstrations in Paris since early December. "This struggle is being waged for the general public." And what happens if the strikers run out of strength soon? "Even if Macron managed to push through his reform, it would only be a Pyrrhic victory for him," says Claude Marill.

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