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French unions vow to bring the country to a standstill to protest pension reforms


France is preparing for a ritual there - a massive protest that shuts down the country.


And that's what labor unions are attempting to protest President Emmanuel Macron's plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Now, they've held other strikes this year but now plan for an open-ended strike that could last for days. This is a business student in Paris.


MARTÍNEZ: What she's saying there is, "a day, once in a while, that's fine, but you shouldn't block the economy either, and that's not how we will progress."

INSKEEP: NPR correspondent Eleanor Beardsley is in the streets of Paris. Hey there, Eleanor.


INSKEEP: Where are you exactly, and what are you seeing?

BEARDSLEY: Well, I'm in the street in the 15th arrondissement, and actually, what I'm seeing is a calmer day than usual. There seems to be less traffic. Almost feels like a normal day, but it's not. With the public transport all but shut down, people are getting to work on bike and foot. And many companies told employees just to work from home today. Now, the big protest marches in Paris and in more than 200 cities across the country start this afternoon, but the chaos has already begun, really. Many schools are closed, as teachers and students join the protest. Oil refineries are blocked. And truckers have started blocking roads in what's known as an operation escargot. It means you drive slowly in every lane, block the highway and force the traffic to crawl along at a snail's pace.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) It sounds so much more classy when you say escargot instead of snails.

BEARDSLEY: Yes (laughter).

INSKEEP: So how long will this last?

BEARDSLEY: It could last one day, two days, all week or even longer. At the end of the day, the unions will vote to decide whether it continues, but they seem determined. We think it's going to continue. Here is the head of the hard-line union, the CGT, Philippe Martinez, speaking on the radio. He's talked about the movement going into higher gear. Here he is.


PHILIPPE MARTINEZ: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: So basically, he said, the responsibility for this mess is totally the French government's, which is trying to ignore this massive protest movement, and he says, we won't stop until this bill is withdrawn completely.

INSKEEP: Is the government likely to back off on its proposed pension changes?

BEARDSLEY: So far, no. The bill is in the Senate, where it should be approved today. You know, they say that with people living longer, people just have to work a little bit longer to keep the system. It's kind of like our Social Security system. You pay in. People who work pay in for those who are retired. And, you know, they say we have to raise the minimum - it's the minimum retirement age, 62 to 64. Most people retire at 64. But that'll mean that everybody works a little longer. And so, no, this is likely to be a big standoff that goes on.

INSKEEP: Well, I suppose the politicians must be listening to the people and presuming that they have some public support somewhere, even though there's all these people who are going to protest. So do you have a good sense of where the French people really stand on all this?

BEARDSLEY: Well, they elected Macron, and he said he wanted to reform the retirement system. So there's that. And that's what he always says. But actually, a big majority of the French do support this - you know, getting rid of this reform. They say the budget gaps can be filled in other ways, like taxing the super-rich. And they say, actually, the system is not about to collapse, and it was - it did have a surplus last year. And more broadly, they say it's the choice of society. They want a society of equality and solidarity. Progress doesn't mean working until you keel over. So the people I've been talking to, 59% of the French actually want to see the economy paralyzed to get rid of this reform bill.

INSKEEP: Wow. Just very briefly, just to clarify, most people voted for Macron, who said he wanted to reform the system, but most people oppose the reforms, right?

BEARDSLEY: Yes, because there's the government, and then there's the street in France.

INSKEEP: OK, that's democracy. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.