PARIS (AP) — Young people in France — including some who haven’t even entered the job market yet — are protesting Thursday against the government’s push to raise the retirement age.
Students blocked access to some universities and high schools, and several hundred students led a protest in Paris as part of nationwide strikes and demonstrations against the pension bill under debate in parliament. The protest briefly turned violent as a group of youths broke away, vandalized bus stops and set a car on fire.
The energy branch of France's prominent union, CGT, on Thursday cut power to the large sports complex in the northern suburb of Paris, including the Stade de France and several construction sites of the infrastructure for the 2024 Olympics.
For a generation already worried about inflation, uncertain job prospects and climate change, the retirement bill is stirring up broader questions about the value of work.
“I don’t want to work all my life and be exhausted at the end,” said Djana Farhaig, a 15-year-old who blocked her Paris high school with other students during a protest action last month. “It is important for us to show that the youth is engaged for its future.”
People in their teens and early 20s have taken part in protests against the retirement reform since the movement kicked off in January, but student groups and unions are seeking to call attention to young people's concerns Thursday.
“If we don't do something, nothing will ever change,” said Penelope Ledesma. The 16-year-old student said she blocked the entrance to her high school in the town Chelles outside Paris on Wednesday and traveled to the capital on Thursday to support the strikers against the government's retirement reform.
President Emmanuel Macron wants to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and make other changes he says are needed to keep the public pension system financially stable as the population ages. Opponents argue that wealthy taxpayers or companies should pitch in more to finance the system instead.
Quentin Queller, a 23-year-old student who attended an earlier round of protests, said, “64 is so far away, it is depressing.”
He questioned the idea that hard work equals happiness, arguing that “we should work less and have more free time.” He and others echoed concerns by older protesters that instead of working to live, France is moving toward a system where people would have to live for work.
At one protest, a teenage boy held a placard saying: “I don’t want my parents to die at work.”
Like dozens of colleges, Nanterre university in the western suburbs of Paris has been partly blocked since Tuesday by students opposing the pension reform, although by Thursday, numbers were beginning to tail off.
Alex Ribeiro, a 21-year-old humanities student at the university, said he hoped the youth strike will pressure the government to reconsider the retirement reform and consider young people's future in the labor market and their parents' prospects for a decent life in retirement after decades of hard work.
Ribeiro is concerned for his mother, who should be retiring soon after working as a cleaner for decades. “She has been working since she was 12,” Ribeiro said, adding that "she won’t have the physical and mental capacity to continue” working for two more years if the government raises the retirement age.
Thomas Coutrot, an economist specializing in health and conditions of work, described a widespread sentiment that “work has become unbearable.”
“Young people perceive that the conditions of work are deteriorating and that workers don’t understand anymore why they work,” he said.
The young protesters include many supporters of the far-left France Unbowed party and other left-wing groups, but also others. They see it as a fundamental right to be able to live on a state pension, and perceive the bill as a rollback of hard-won social achievements.
Elisa Lepetit, 18, is already working part-time in a bar alongside her studies to become a teacher, and can’t afford to go on strike. But she supports the protests.
“I want to become a teacher, but I can’t see myself working until 64,” she said. “The goal after a lifetime of hard work is to be able to spend time with my family.”
Some take a more apocalyptic view, saying their time on Earth is already threatened by climate change. "Working until 67 when it will be over 55 degrees (Celsius) makes no sense,'' joked Anissa Saudemont, 29, whose job in the media sector is related to ecology.
While young people are often present at French protest movements, Paolo Stuppia, a sociologist at the Sorbonne and at California State Polytechnic University in Humboldt, said an especially large number are taking part in the campaign against the retirement bill.
They include people who also march for climate action, LGBTQ rights, or against racial and gender-based discrimination, Stuppia said, and who are making a link with a pension bill they also see as unfair.
“For young people, their future seems to be completely closed and this reform is part of a model they want to question,” Stuppia said.