‘We won’t give up’: French protesters defiant on day 36 of pension strikes

Hundreds of defiant protesters took to the streets of Paris on Thursday for a fourth day of nationwide demonstrations against the French government’s controversial pension reform plans.

They came by bike, by scooter and on foot. There were train drivers, teachers, doctors and lawyers. Grey skies and rain showers did little to deter a sea of orange vests from the hardline CGT union, or Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) who came to show “solidarity” with opponents of the government’s pension reform.

As the strikes against French President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial pension overhaul entered their record-breaking 36th day, the protesters’ resolve showed no sign of waning.

They gathered in their hundreds at Paris’s protest central, the Place de la République. And just after 2pm – to the sound of klaxons, whistles and cheers, the raucous crowd began marching along the Boulevard de Magenta.

A group of drummers from the CGT union made their presence known. Drivers from the RATP sang songs about solidarity and a group of lawyers cried for Macron to “recule” (back off). Some let off plumes of pink smoke.

“Macron is the king of bla bla but the servant of capitalism,” said one placard. “I gave birth at work, I don’t want to die at work” read another.

“We’re not giving up. We’re going right to the end,” said Grégorie Vassaux, 46, a nurse, who added that he’d been galvanised into attending the protest by Macron’s ‘haughty” New Year’s Eve address, where the president vowed to press ahead with the reform.

“We need to show him that we’re here,” said Vassaux, “and that we don’t want this reform.”

“It’s right that we work – and it’s important that we contribute to our country’s economy,” said Vassaux, “but we have a right to 10-15 years, where we’re in more or less good health, where we can enjoy life and our kids a bit more. With these reforms I will have to work until I’m 67.”

The main sticking point of Macron’s planned pension reforms includes pushing back the retirement age at which retirees would be eligible for full pensions from 62 to 64. Unions say the measure would make millions of people work longer for less.

Other protesters claimed that unifying France’s 42 different pension schemes, some of which grant early retirement, into a single, universal points-based system, will widen the gap between rich and poor.

“Those who have a big salary will have a nice retirement,” said Violaine, 26, a teacher from outside Paris, “but those who are poor will stay poor. It’s not fair. I think it’s extremely hypocritical. The government talks about equality and solidarity but in reality the reform brings neither.”

Taking a toll on salaries

Violaine admitted the strike was taking a heavy toll on her salary. She’s only been striking on protest days, when unions stage rallies across the country, but she’s feeling the effects of a lower income.

“We’re not partying. We’re not shopping. We’re living on pasta,” she laughed. “But it’s worth it,” she added. “It’s called having a political conscience.”

Train drivers from the RER B line, which connects the French capital with its international airports, had a kitty to encourage people to support them.

“We’re really touched to the bottom of our hearts by those who contribute to our kitty,” said Fabrice Archet, 46, a train driver from the RER B line, who said support from friends and family was keeping him afloat.

“It’s not necessarily the wealthy who give to our kitty – it’s often students and people who are struggling themselves.”

“We need to show the government that we won’t give up, that we’re here in the street and that he [Macron] needs to listen to us.”

Contempt for Macron

His words, and a contempt for Macron, were echoed by Marie Sabrina, 34, a teacher from Seine Saint-Denis. “It’s been a month since we’ve been protesting, and he’s not listening to us. He needs to listen to the street,” said Sabrina, for whom going on strike is a “sacrifice worth making”.

“He’s a banker. He just cares about finance and money – that he gives to his rich friends,” said Marie-Noël, an environmental educator, referring to Macron’s past as an investment banker. “He’s destroying the public sector – the education, health, and justice systems.”

Many protesters remained defiant and determined. Jérôme de Pierre, 43, a school supervisor, said momentum was building at the school where he worked. Only two teachers out of 30 were working today, he explained, and twenty-eight were on strike. “We’re just at the beginning of the mobilisation,” he said.

“I don’t know if we’re at the beginning, the middle or the end of this protest movement,” said Archet. “What I do know is that we won’t give up – and I’m more motivated than ever before.”