PARIS (AFP) – Fresh strikes hit trains, schools and refineries in France on Tuesday over an unpopular pension reform pushed by President Emmanuel Macron, as opponents took to the streets for a day of protests.
The third day of union-backed demonstrations since January 19 was set to test momentum for the protest movement which has vowed to block Macron’s bid to raise the retirement age.
The head of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, warned that more “numerous, massive and rolling” strikes were coming if the government did not drop the plan.
“If the government keeps on refusing to listen then of course things will have to be ratcheted up,” he said, as the demonstration in Paris got underway.
Macron put raising the retirement age and encouraging the French to work more at the heart of his re-election campaign last year, but polls estimate that two-thirds of people are against the changes.
Lawmakers began debating the reform, which would see the age for a full pension raised from 62 to 64 and the mandatory number of years of work extended for a full pension, during a stormy session in parliament on Monday.
Last week’s demonstrations brought out 1.3 million people across the country while a first round on January 19 drew 1.1 million protesters, according to the police.
A security source told AFP that between 900,000 and 1.1 million people were expected on Tuesday.
The crowds so far have been the largest anti-government protests since 2010, during pension reform by right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
There were tensions in the western city of Nantes where protesters clashed with security forces who used tear gas pellets, an AFP photographer said.
Hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said Macron had to take account of the mobilization on the streets.
“Unless he has become completely
authoritarian, you need to be reasonable in a democracy,” he said, accusing Macron of trying to start his five-year term with a “show of force”.
Trains and the Paris metro again faced “severe disruptions”, while cancellations at Orly airport south of the capital were expected to total one in five.
The overall level of disruption, including in schools, was estimated to be lower than on the previous two days of action.
Another day of action is planned by unions on Saturday although with train unions calling for protests rather than strikes, disruption may be less severe.
Around one in two workers at oil refineries run by energy giant TotalEnergies had stopped work, the company said.
Macron’s proposals would bring France closer into line with its European neighbors, most of which have retirement ages of 65 or higher.
But the government has struggled to defend the overhaul as necessary or fair, given that the system is currently in balance and that low-skilled workers are said by many economists to bear the brunt of the changes.
Forecasts from the independent Pensions Advisory Council show the pensions system in deficit on average over the next 25 years.
The changes would lead to annual savings of around 18 billion euros ($19.5 billion) by 2030 -- mostly from pushing people to work for longer and abolishing some special retirement schemes.
In parliament, the government will need to rely on the right-wing Republicans opposition party to pass the draft legislation, without having to resort to controversial executive powers that dispense with the need for a vote.
Macron’s allies are in a minority in the hung National Assembly after elections in June.
Speaking in parliament on Monday, far-right French leader Marine Le Pen said the government’s reform was “unfair” and “dictated by your desire to please the European Commission.”