‘We won’t give up’: French strikers vow to up ante in pension-reform demonstrations

Striking workers disrupted French refinery deliveries, public transport and schools on Tuesday in a second day of nationwide protests over President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to make people work longer before retirement.

Huge crowds marched through cities across France to denounce a reform that raises the retirement age by two years to 64 and which is a test of Macron’s ability to push through change now that he has lost his working majority in parliament.

On the rail networks, only one in three high-speed TGV trains were operating and even fewer local and regional trains. Services on the Paris metro were thrown into disarray.

Marching behind banners reading “No to the reform” or “We won’t give up,” many said they would take to the streets as often as needed for the government to back down.

“We won’t drive until we’re 64!” bus driver Isabelle Texier said at a protest in Saint-Nazaire on the Atlantic coast.

“For the president, it’s easy. He sits in a chair … he can work until he’s 70, even,” she said. “We can’t ask roof layers to work until 64, it’s not possible.”

A lone traveler walks in Paris’s Montparnasse train station on Tuesday. France’s national rail operator recommended that passengers stay home to avoid strikes over pension reforms. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)

After Jan. 19, when more than a million people took to the streets on the first nationwide strike day, unions said initial data from protests across the country showed a bigger turnout.

“It’s better than on the 19th … it’s a real message sent to the government, saying we don’t want the 64 years,” Laurent Berger, who leads CFDT, France’s largest union, said ahead of the Paris march.

Opinion polls show a substantial majority of the French oppose the reform, but Macron intends to stand his ground. The reform was “vital” to ensure the viability of the pension system, he said on Monday.

Feeling of resignation

Some felt resigned amid bargaining between Macron’s ruling alliance and conservative opponents who are more open to pension reform than the left.

“There’s no point in going on strike. This bill will be adopted in any case,” said 34-year-old Matthieu Jacquot, who works in the luxury sector.

Unions said half of primary school teachers had walked off the job. TotalEnergies said 55 per cent of its workers on morning shifts at its refineries had downed tools, a lower number than on Jan. 19. The hard-left CGT union said the figure was inaccurate.

For unions, the challenge will be maintaining a strike movement at a time when high inflation is eroding salaries.

At a local level, some announced “Robin Hood” operations unauthorized by the government. In the southwestern Lot-et-Garonne area, the local CGT trade union branch cut power to several speed cameras and disabled smart power meters.

“When there is such a massive opposition, it would be dangerous for the government not to listen,” said Mylene Jacquot, secretary general of the CFDT union’s civil servants branch.

A wide angle photo of protestors demonstrating against pension reform in Paris.
Protesters gather for a demonstration Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 in Paris. Labor unions aimed to mobilize more than one million demonstrators in what one veteran left-wing leader described as a ‘citizens’ insurrection.’ (Thibault Camus/The Associated Press)

The pension system reform would yield an additional 17.7 billion euros ($25.8 billion Cdn) in annual pension contributions, according to Labour Ministry estimates.

Unions say there are other ways to raise revenue, such as taxing the super-rich or asking employers or well-off pensioners to contribute more.

“This reform is unfair and brutal,” said Luc Farre, the secretary general of the civil servants’ UNSA union.


French power supply was down by 4.5 per cent, or three gigawatts, as workers at nuclear reactors and thermal plants joined the strike, data from utility group EDF showed.

TotalEnergies said deliveries of petroleum products from its French sites had been halted, but that customers’ needs were met.

The government made some concessions while drafting the legislation. Macron had originally wanted the retirement age to be set at 65, while the government is also promising a minimum pension of 1,200 euros a month.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has said the 64 threshold is “non-negotiable,” but the government is exploring ways to offset some of the impact, particularly on women.

Hard-left opposition figure Jean-Luc Melenchon, a vocal critic of the reform, said parliament would on Monday debate a motion calling for a referendum on the matter.

“The French are not stupid,” he said at a march in Marseille. “If this reform is vital, it should be possible to convince the people.”

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