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France braces for another nationwide strike against planned pension changes

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

French unions have called for a second day of nationwide strikes today. They're pressuring the government of Emmanuel Macron to drop its planned changes to retirement, especially the plan to raise the minimum retirement age, which allows a full pension, from 62 to 64. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports the proposed change is especially unpopular outside of big cities.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The Burgundy countryside is full of medieval churches, stone villages and hardworking people like Annik Riboulet. She's a 71-year-old retiree who enjoys spending time with her grandchildren.

ANNIK RIBOULET: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I started working at the age of 14," she says, "as a cashier in a bakery." Riboulet never stopped, even while raising four children, until she retired at the age of 58. She had what is known as a long career. Under the proposed changes, people like Riboulet would still be able to retire early because nobody will have to work more than 44 years. But Riboulet's son-in-law, 47-year-old Fabien Stephan, who works in a slaughterhouse, would have to work two extra years until 64.

FABIEN STEPHAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "It's extremely physical work getting these huge animals through the process," he says. "No one will be able to do two more years under this reform - no one." Mathieu Gallard is a pollster with Ipsos in Paris. He says 70% of the French oppose the overhaul of the pension system. That's up 10 points from September. Gallard says respondents do not believe the pension system needs fixing. It had a surplus in 2021. And he says the French public thinks the burden will not be shared equally.

MATHIEU GALLARD: Emmanuel Macron has been seen as a president for successful people, I would say. And they tend to think that this reform will be a gain for - you know, for professionals and manager, but not for the working class.

BEARDSLEY: The government consulted with unions over the draft proposal. It has provisions for those with physically difficult careers and night work. It raises the minimum retirement amount to 1,200 euros a month. And yet people are fixated on the retirement age.

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PRIME MINISTER ELISABETH BORNE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: But Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne says working until 64 is nonnegotiable because workers need to pay into the system longer to keep it viable.

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AXEL PERSSON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Train conductor and union steward Axel Persson told French TV people are angry, and there are many more buses ready to transport protesters from the suburbs into Paris today. Parliament began debating the retirement bill Monday. Without the absolute majority in Parliament he once had, analysts say Macron will need every vote he can find. And unions say they're committed to fighting for the duration, but they'll need to keep the public on board.

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BEARDSLEY: Back in Burgundy, 75-year-old Michel Zanotti is waiting tables in his restaurant. He says he feels great and has no desire to retire.

MICHEL ZANOTTI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We live longer, and there's no more money in the coffers. So maybe we do need to find a balance," he says.

PIERRE SHLEVY: (Speaking French, laughter).

BEARDSLEY: Eighty-one-year-old Pierre Shlevy shuffles up to the bar with a cane in each hand. He says he was happy to retire at 60. That was thanks to France's first socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, who in 1981 lowered the retirement age from 65 to 60 in one fell swoop. Since then, nearly every president has been trying to get the French to work a little longer.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Burgundy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.