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French police deployed tear gas and used pepper spray on protesters in Paris, Thursday, December 5. The Eiffel Tower shut down, France's vaunted high-speed trains stood still and teachers walked off the job as unions launched nationwide strikes and protests

Thursday over the government's plan to overhaul the retirement system. Paris authorities barricaded the presidential palace and deployed 6,000 police as activists, many in yellow vests representing France's year-old movement for economic justice, gathered for a major march through the capital. 

Organisers hope for a mass outpouring of anger at President Emmanuel Macron for his center piece reform, seen as threatening the hard-fought French way of life. Macron himself remained “calm and determined” to push it through, according to a top presidential official.

France's biggest strike in decades has shut down public transport services and reduced the number of hospital staff, teachers and police officers at work in the latest protest against President Emmanuel Macron's reforms. In this case, unions representing millions of staff in both the public and private sectors are unhappy about a plan to overhaul the country's pension system, which they say will force people to work longer or face reduced payouts when they retire.

One opinion poll put public support for the latest strike action at 69%, with backing strongest among 18-34 year-olds. So why is Mr Macron looking to implement such unpopular new measures - and just how controversial are they?

What's Macron up to? Well, France currently has a complex system of 42 different pension schemes for its private and public sectors, with variations in retirement age and benefits. Mr Macron wants to create a unified system. Pension benefits are largely calculated using an employee's 25 highest-paid years of work in the private sector, while in the public sector it is based on payments made in the last six months before retirement.

The French president's new plan aims to reward employees for each day worked, earning points that would later be transferred into future pension benefits. Millions of people are expected to take to the streets in protest across France that could last days In November, a report commissioned by France's Prime Minister Edouard Philippe concluded that, under the existing system, the country's pension deficit could be as high as €17.2bn ($19bn; £14.5bn) by 2025.

The cost of France's current system, in terms of public spending as a percentage of GDP (the country's entire economic output), is among the highest in the world - at 14%.

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