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French mass protests challenge Macron over pensions plan

French protesters launched a new campaign on Tuesday to pressure President Emmanuel Macron to abandon a pension reform plan, sending hundreds of thousands into the streets and disrupting transport and schools.

For the second time in less than two weeks, union-led protesters came out in a massive demonstration challenging Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, the flagship reform of his second term.

A police source said authorities were bracing for as many as 1.2 million people to take to the streets across the country.

If confirmed, the number would surpass the 1.1m who protested against the proposed reshuffle on Jan. 19 – already the largest protest since the last major pension overhaul in 2010.

“We want at least that many people again,” Philippe Martinez, president of the hard-left CGT union, told media on Tuesday, adding that there would be 250 protest marches.

Laurent Berger, president of the moderate CFDT union, said “there were already bigger numbers than last time”, even before the country’s biggest protests began in Paris.

But Macron showed no signs of backing down, insisting on Monday that reforms were “necessary”.

Some 11,000 police officers were mobilized, with 4,000 deployed in Paris alone.

In the morning, the first marches began across the country, attended by several prominent opposition politicians.

– ‘Definitely lose’ –

“Mr Macron is sure to lose,” said Jean-Luc Melenchon, a far-left figurehead and former presidential candidate who marched in the southern port city of Marseille.

Millions of people had to find alternative transportation, work from home or take time off to care for school-age children on Tuesday, including strikes by workers in the transportation and education sectors.

“It’s not just about pensions, it’s about what kind of society we want,” university professor Martine Beugnet, 59, told AFP.

Metro and suburban rail services in Paris are severely restricted, as is intercity travel.

A union source told AFP that 36.5% of rail operator SNCF’s workforce was out of work, down from 46.3% on Jan. 19.

In the southwestern city of Bordeaux, Cheikh Sadibou Tamamate, 36, said he had reserved a seat on an early-morning train to Paris. “Unfortunately, it was cancelled,” he said, adding that he hoped to catch a later train, if any.

About a quarter of kindergarten and elementary school teachers went on strike, according to the education ministry. In middle and high schools, more than half of teachers have been furloughed, according to a teachers union.

Much of France’s oil industry has been paralyzed, with the CGT union at energy giant TotalEnergies reporting between 75% and 100% of workers on strike.

– ‘the less they support’ –

High school and university students also joined the movement, and dozens of students from the prestigious Sciences Po occupied its main building overnight.

“It’s important to involve young people in the pension debate,” Jean-Baptiste Bonnet, a student there, told AFP.

Even a prison in the southwestern city of Nîmes was cordoned off by protesting staff, a union source said.

A poll by the OpinionWay survey group on Monday showed that 61 percent of French people support the protest movement, up three percentage points from Jan. 12.

“The more the French know about reform, the less they support it,” said Frederic Dabi, a leading pollster at the Ifop Institute.

“It’s not good for the government at all,” he told AFP.

The most controversial part of the reform is raising the minimum retirement age, but it also requires working more years to qualify for a full pension.

“I don’t want to work longer hours,” said Sylvie Dieppois, 56, a kitchen helper near Rouen in western France. “I work so hard that even at 62 I’m going to burn out.”

France has the lowest age for receiving a state pension among major European economies.

The government says the changes are necessary to secure the future financing of the pension system, which is expected to slip into deficit for years to come.

But opponents point out that there is nothing wrong with the system, insisting that pension spending is not getting out of hand.

The government has said there may be wiggle room for some of the proposed measures, but not the age limit.

Macron’s centrist allies do not have an outright majority in parliament and will need a conservative vote to push through the new legislation.


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