People gather for a protest at the Vieux Port on the third day of nationwide rallies against a deeply unpopular pensions overhaul in the port city of Marseille, southern France on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. AFP PHOTO

Fresh protests over pension reform hit France

PARIS: Fresh strikes hit trains, schools and refineries in France on Tuesday over an unpopular pension reform pushed by President Emmanuel Macron, with nationwide protests planned for later in the day.

A third day of union-backed demonstrations since January 19 is set to test the momentum for the protest movement, which has vowed to block Macron’s bid to raise the retirement age.

“We are dealing with a president — because he is at the heart of all this — who, with his oversized ego, wants to prove that he is capable of passing this reform,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the hardline CGT union, told RTL radio.

Macron put raising the retirement age and encouraging the French to work more at the heart of his reelection 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 West European country while a first round on January 19 saw 1.1 million, according to the police.

A security source told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that between 900,000 and 1.1 million people were expected on Tuesday.

The crowds so far have been the largest antigovernment protests since 2010 during pension reform by right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

‘Reform or bankruptcy’

Trains and the Paris subway again faced “severe disruptions,” while about one in five flights at Orly airport, south of the capital Paris, were expected to be canceled.

But the overall level of disruption, including in schools, was expected to be lower than on the previous two days.

About half of long-distance trains were running, the state railway company said.

“It’s OK, it’s manageable,” Sylvain Magnan, a 23-year-old told AFP at the main station in the city of Marseille on the Mediterranean. “I just took a later train.”

About one in two workers at oil refineries run by energy giant TotalEnergies had stopped work, the company said, but stocks at gasoline stations are enough to handle any temporary pause in deliveries.

Macron’s proposals would bring France closer into line with its European neighbors, most of which have retirement ages of 65 or older.

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.

“It’s reform or bankruptcy,” Public Accounts Minister Gabriel Attal said in parliament on Monday, leading to criticism from opponents that he was exaggerating.

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 about 18 billion euros ($19.5 billion) by 2030, mostly from pushing people to work for longer and abolishing some special retirement schemes.

France’s spending on pensions is the third highest among industrialized countries relative to the size of its economy. The country is No. 1 in terms of overall public spending, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Sunday offered a key concession, saying people who started work at 20 or 21 would be allowed to leave work a year earlier.

Republicans’ head Eric Ciotti has promised his backing, in theory giving the government the numbers needed to pass the legislation.

But the left-wing opposition group and the far-right nationalist and Eurosceptic party of Marine Le Pen are staunchly opposed and have filed thousands of amendments.

Speaking in parliament on Monday, Le Pen said the government’s reform “unfair” and “dictated by your desire to please the European Commission.”

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