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.
The main CGT union said 500,000 people protested in Paris alone on Tuesday afternoon, up from a figure of 400,000 given on the last day of rallies on January 19.
A police source said authorities were bracing for as many as 1.2 million people to take to the streets across the country, which would surpass the 1.1 million on January 19.
But Macron showed no signs of backing down, insisting on Monday that reforms were “necessary”.
Currently, France has the lowest age for receiving state pensions among major European economies.
Arnaud Roure, a 47-year-old transport worker, was one of the protesters in Paris.
“Ladies and gentlemen in government, you’re wearing people down, you’re sucking up all the resources we have left,” he said. “You’re attacking our bread.”
An AFP correspondent said there were skirmishes between extremists and police in Paris in the afternoon. Police said 18 people had been arrested.
– “My knees are already hurt” –
Tens of thousands of people also joined protests in other parts of the country.
“I don’t want to wait until I’m 64. I’m a nursery school teacher and it’s impossible to teach until this late,” said Sandrine Carre, 52, in the southwestern city of Bordeaux.
“We always had to squat and my knees were already hurting.”
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.
In the southwestern city of Toulouse, Christian, a 54-year-old flight simulator repairman, said he couldn’t wait until he was 65 to receive the maximum allowance.
“I was already working the night shift and it was getting harder,” he said.
Across the country, millions of transportation and education workers went on strike and had to adjust their daily lives.
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.
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.
By noon, almost two in 10 civil servants were on strike, down from 28% on Jan. 19, the authorities said.
– “Getting Young People Involved” –
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,” says student Jean-Baptiste Bonnet.
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.”
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 control.
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.