- The reform would raise the retirement age to 64
- Schools, transport networks, refinery deliveries affected
- Macron: an essential reform to ensure the viability of the pension system
SAINT-NAZAIRE, France, Jan 31 (Reuters) – Strikers disrupted deliveries to French refineries, public transport and schools on Tuesday in a second day of nationwide protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to get people back to work longer before retirement.
Crowds have marched through cities across France to denounce a reform that raises the retirement age by two years to 64 and is a test of Macron’s ability to push through change now that he has lost his majority worker in parliament.
On the rail networks, only one out of three TGVs runs and even fewer local and regional trains. The services of the Paris metro are disorganized.
Building on their success earlier this month when more than a million people took to the streets, unions that have fought to maintain their power and influence have urged the public to come out in droves.
“We won’t drive until we’re 64!” said bus driver Isabelle Texier at a protest in Saint-Nazaire on the Atlantic coast, adding that many careers involved difficult working conditions.
Others felt resigned ahead of likely negotiations between Macron’s ruling alliance and conservative opponents more open to pension reform than the left.
“There’s no point in going on strike. This bill will be passed anyway,” said Matthieu Jacquot, 34, who works in the luxury sector.
Unions said half of primary school teachers had walked off the job. TotalEnergies (TTEF.PA) said 55% of its workers working mornings at its refineries had downed tools, a lower number than on Jan. 19. The far-left CGT union said the figure was incorrect.
For the unions, the challenge will be to maintain a strike movement at a time when high inflation is eroding wages.
At the local level, some announced “Robin Hood” operations not authorized by the government. In the south-west of Lot-et-Garonne, the local CGT union branch cut the power to several radars and disabled smart electricity meters.
“When there is such massive opposition, it would be dangerous for the government not to listen,” said Mylene Jacquot, general secretary of the civil servants branch of the CFDT union.
Opinion polls show that a substantial majority of French people oppose the reform, but Macron intends to hold firm. The reform was “vital” to ensure the viability of the pension system, he said on Monday.
A street march in Paris takes place later in the day.
The reform of the pension system would yield an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.18 billion) in annual pension contributions, according to estimates by the Ministry of Labor.
Unions say there are other ways to raise incomes, such as taxing the super rich or asking employers or wealthy pensioners to contribute more.
“This reform is unfair and brutal,” said Luc Farre, secretary general of the UNSA civil servants’ union. “Moving (the retirement age) to 64 is going backwards, socially.”
France’s electricity supply fell by 4.5% or 3 gigawatts (GW), as workers at nuclear reactors and thermal power plants joined the strike, according to data from utility group EDF (EDF.PA).
TotalEnergies said deliveries of petroleum products from its French sites had been interrupted due to the strike, but customer needs were being met.
The government made some concessions when drafting the legislation. Macron initially wanted the retirement age to be set at 65, while the government is also promising a minimum pension of 1,200 euros per month.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said the 64-year-old threshold was “non-negotiable”, but the government is exploring ways to offset some of the impact, particularly on women.
Far-left opposition figure Jean-Luc Melenchon, a vocal critic of the reform, said parliament would debate a motion on Monday calling for a referendum on the issue.
“The French are not stupid,” he said during a march in Marseille. “If this reform is vital, it should be able to convince the people.”
Reporting by Forrest Crellin, Benjamin Mallet, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Leigh Thomas, Blandine Henault, Michel Rose, Dominique Vidalon, Benoit Van Overstraeten; Written by Ingrid Melander and Richard Lough; Editing by Janet Lawrence
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