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Why French protests over pensions could threaten Macron’s international agenda

Protesters have shut down Paris and much of France in angry response to proposed pension reforms. The changes, which would unify the current system and increase workers’ ability to change sectors, represent the delivery of a campaign promise from President Emmanuel Macron. But French labor unions and other critics fear they will affect retirement age or scope of benefits. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For a second straight day, a general strike brought much of France to a halt. The streets are filled with protesters denouncing President Emmanuel Macron.

    As Nick Schifrin tells us, it's Macron's ideas on reforming sacrosanct sections of the French national retirement system that have sparked outrage across the country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the City of Light, dusk arrives early in a cloud of tear gas. Protesters have shut down Paris and much of France. Phalanx of police charge at demonstrators and show little restraint.

    Police have arrested hundreds. In a nation founded on revolt, demonstrators have held up the flag and much of Paris' public transit and schools for two days. Hundreds of thousands of protesters from all walks of life are united by opposition to proposed pensions reforms.

  • Philippe Martinez (through translator):

    Retirees are here. Youth are here. This shows that we are all affected by this bad proposal, and we are all here to say that we don't want it.

  • Michel Laurent (through translator):

    I demonstrate for the next generation. I doubt that younger people will have a pension like we currently have.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is the French union's greatest show of force since 41-year-old Emmanuel Macron was elected president, promising fundamental reforms to an economic system considered anti-business, with pension reform at the center.

  • Jean Pisani-Ferry:

    It's the most ambitious reform than Macron has introduced.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jean Pisani-Ferry helped design the pension reforms as a Macron senior adviser. He says they're supposed make a complex system more transparent and fair.

  • Jean Pisani-Ferry:

    It's a very ambitious reform, the reform of the pension system. We have a fragmented pensions system. And the ambition of the reform is to create a unified system, which would favor mobility, because you could easily move from one sector to another. And, also, in terms of fairness, it would be the same rules for everyone.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    France has one of the world's most protective pension systems. France's average retirement age is 62, and the country spends 14 percent of its GDP on pensions. The average for leading industrialized countries is 8 percent.

    These reforms don't actually change those numbers, but protesters fear the reforms could lower pensions and increase the retirement age, tapping into larger economic concerns.

  • Ive (through translator):

    Reforming the pensions was the last straw, since, in the past few years, we have been losing everything, whether it be unemployment benefits or job cuts in the public sector.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And as that fear increases, Macron's gotten less popular. His critics call him imperious. And he misread his 2017 election landslide, says Pisani-Ferry, who is now at the Peterson Institute in Washington, D.C.

  • Jean Pisani-Ferry:

    These was never a real debate on issues. And I think Macron misinterpreted that by saying that he had got a mandate to do what he had proposed. And that put him very much out of touch with the perception of inequality and the anger and what we see in many of our societies, that people are — feel they are left behind.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more than a year, yellow vest protesters have demonstrated the high cost of living and rising fuel costs. They carried the cross for lower taxes and wage increases on weekends to not lose workdays.

    Today's protesters are mostly unionized employees unafraid to spend workdays on the streets. And that means they threaten Macron's entire reform agenda.

  • Jean Pisani-Ferry:

    If he has to capitulate, this means the ability to do anything significant until the end of the term will be destroyed.

  • President Emmanuel Macron:

    Let's be serious.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Europe, Macron's become an outspoken voice, standing up to President Trump and calling for fundamental reforms to NATO and European defense. But if he loses his domestic reform battle, that imperils his international agenda, says Pisani-Ferry.

  • Jean Pisani-Ferry:

    Part of his legitimacy internationally has been based on the fact that he's perceived as a reformer, as someone who is able to tackle the problem of the French society and the French economy. You cannot be unable to do reforms at home and ask for reforms at the international level.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, the majority of France supports the general strike. Macron's fundamental reforms are being fundamentally challenged, and the protesters vow to keep going until the pension reforms are abandoned.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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