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Labor unrest is growing in Europe

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Workers in France and the United Kingdom are walking off their jobs. The strikes have the potential to ground whole sectors of their economies to a halt. But they're doing so for different reasons. In France, President Emmanuel Macron is trying to amend the country's pension system, which he says requires raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. In the U.K., people want more money because the cost of living in Britain is becoming so high. Joining us now to tell us more are Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and Willem Marx in London. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ELEANOR BEARDLSEY, BYLINE: Thank you.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: All right. Eleanor, we're going to start in France. Just tell us a little bit more about what Macron is trying to do and why.

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely, Michel. Well, reforming the pension system was Macron's campaign promise. He wanted to make it viable for future generations. You know, he's this young, dynamic president coming in. He wanted to reform this notoriously unreformable country. It's kind of like the Social Security system, our Social Security system, the French retirement. You know, you pay in while you're working and then it pays you. Every president has tinkered with it in the last 20 years. And Macron actually started the reform in 2018, but he took a pause for COVID. And he's picked it back up again, and it's not necessarily gotten easier. It seems that everyone is against one of the main pillars, which is working a little bit longer. He wants to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, and that's not gone over well at all.

MARTIN: How do we know that? Like, what are you seeing in public opinion there?

BEARDSLEY: Well, first of all, the unions are united against it. And a lot of times, they'll split on things. And also, the polls show 72% of the French are against it. That's up from 59% just two weeks ago. So it looks like the government is losing the battle of public opinion. And 10 days ago, the unions called for a strike and protest day, and it was very successful, Michel. There were more than a million people in the streets of France. Here's one of them, 45-year-old Rafael Tremulato (ph). He teaches carpentry at a vocational high school. He was wearing a skateboard taped to his back that said, we don't want 68-year-old teachers. Here's what he says.

RAFAEL TREMULATO: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He says, "France is a rich country. People in previous generations were tired, younger. There were no problems. And why should we be working longer if society is progressing?" So he says there are other ways to buttress this system, and it's not faltering, as the government says. And this reform, and many people agree, is putting the burden on the shoulders of blue-collar workers and women who have sometimes had interrupted careers.

MARTIN: Willem, what about the U.K.? Can you tell us who's protesting there and what are they saying about why?

MARX: Well, over the past week, there have been strikes involving ambulance paramedics, nurses, bus drivers, teachers, physiotherapists and courtroom workers. Next week, there'll be several days of strikes involving railway workers. And many of these are far from the first time that these particular groups of workers have walked off the job, even recently, with a bunch of different unions across a whole range of British business sectors initiating these kinds of strikes over the past few months. The impact has at times been pretty major. You've had hospitals canceling non-emergency operations, for instance. So you've had the country's entire train network essentially grind to a halt on Sundays. Even this week, some warehouse workers at Amazon's U.K. subsidiary formed picket lines to protest the fact that their hourly wages are just pennies more than the national minimum wage.

MARTIN: So is there a common thread among all these different groups of workers?

MARX: Well, you know, as you might expect, it's around pay and working conditions sometimes. The U.K.'s national inflation rate has been almost as high as 10% in recent months. That means, you know, when wages stay the same, but prices for food or energy or rent are much higher than they were a few months ago. People struggle to make ends meet. And in Britain, economists are calling this a cost-of-living crisis. Whereas a private company might decide to pay workers more money, in the public sector, of course, it's the government that has to decide whether to increase wages. And a lot of these jobs - emergency workers, civil servants, teachers - you know, these are people who are paid according to wages set in part, at least, by government ministers. They themselves say they're worried that raising pay will mean inflation itself stays high.

So it's a bit of a difficult situation. And the conservatives in power right now, led by Rishi Sunak, they've earned a pretty terrible reputation in the last few months when it comes to economic competence. And after all the upheaval from Brexit and then the pandemic, some economists are worried that there could be serious long-term consequences for Britain's global competitiveness, its attractiveness to investors if high inflation and then low economic growth continue for that much longer.

MARTIN: So you're telling us that there are more strikes planned in the U.K. Eleanor, what's next in France?

BEARDSLEY: Michel, everyone is bracing for Tuesday, when unions have called for another big strike and protests. We'll see how successful they are. Meanwhile, the government wants to put the bill in front of Parliament on February 6. They'd hope to pass it quickly, but the far left and the far right are against it. They've attached 6,000 amendments to it already. So Macron is going to need every vote he can get, and he no longer has an absolute majority. So if he doesn't pass this, it's going to weaken him.

MARTIN: Willem, let me end with you. Is what's happening in France and what's happening in the U.K. tell us anything about what's going on on the rest of the continent?

MARX: Well, if you look at some recent economic data out just this week, it shows that across what we call the eurozone - that's the 20 countries that use the euro currency - that's an indication that business activity is expanding slightly. And that's despite all these fears at the end of just last year that there would be a recession in Europe and that it was imminent thanks to the high energy prices, the conflict in Ukraine. Supply chains for businesses, they're facing fewer of some of the challenges that there were over the last couple of years. Consumer confidence in big economies like Germany is improving. That, of course, suggests that demand will rise and that, you know, given a tight labor market, it's quite a good moment for employees to ask for higher pay or better working conditions from their employers. In the U.K., I would say, meanwhile, the data indicates that business activity has actually shrunk. And, of course, all these strike days, they have broader economic implications as well.

MARTIN: That was Willem Marx in London. And we also heard from Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Thank you both so much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Michel.

MARX: Thank you. 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.