French President Emmanuel Macron Image Credit: Reuters

Paris: With tens of thousands of antigovernment demonstrators once again coursing through the streets of Paris and other cities and clouds of tear gas and smashed store windows punctuating the urban landscape, the French government made a major concession Saturday to unions protesting its pension reform plan.

It agreed to scrap, for now at least, a proposal to raise the full-benefits retirement age from 62 to 64. Unlike in the United States, the French government plays a huge role in the retirement plans of individuals in France, both as a source of funds and as overseer and guarantor of the pension system.

The raised age had infuriated moderate unions that the government of President Emmanuel Macron badly needs on its side. Macron has insisted the French need to work longer to strengthen a generous retirement system that is one of the world’s most generous but may be heading toward a $19 billion deficit.

On Saturday, with a crippling transport strike already in its sixth week, Macron’s government backed down, announcing that it would “withdraw” the new age limit, and put off decisions on financing the system until it gets a report on the money problem “between now and the end of April.”

But the government did not entirely rule out the idea of reintroducing a new retirement age if funding solutions to the pensions deficit are not reached.

And the government’s concession is unlikely to end either the strike or the demonstrations. The more militant unions — and the ones most heavily represented in the railways and the Paris subway — are demanding that Macron abandon his entire reform plan.

The demand in the streets Saturday was for precisely that. The mood was militant, and the more violent demonstrators once again clashed with police, even as they sowed a trail of damage through eastern Paris. A bank branch was sacked, and bus shelters smashed and fires set. Unions said 150,000 protesters were in the streets of Paris on Saturday.

“We’ve got to continue to mobilise, until they pull the whole plan, pure and simple,” Eric Coquerel, a representative in Parliament and a leading voice in the far-left France Unbowed party, told French television Saturday afternoon, as police sirens blared in the background

Macron’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe, announced the concession.

The moderate French Democratic Confederation of Labor, or CFDT, which has long been calling for the withdrawal of the new retirement age, welcomed the government’s move Saturday, which it said had shown “the government’s willingness to compromise.”

Macron has insisted that his retirement plan represents a fair, rational response to the new world of work, where careers are interrupted and French citizens no longer stay in the same job for life.

The plan would replace the current system of 42 different pension regimes, most tailored to match individual professions, with a single, points-based system that will be the same for everybody. Workers would accumulate points, then cash them in at the end. Bus drivers in Toulouse would get the same retirement benefits as those in Paris — not now the case, as the Paris system has some of the country’s most generous benefits.

Now, workers in the private and public sector get pension benefits based on the salaries of their best working years. That system would end.

The French, though, are uneasy with Macron’s proposals. Although polls show they support some form of universal pension plan, they are also deeply attached to a system that has achieved among the lowest old-age poverty rates in the world.