Protesters in the northern French city of Lille on Tuesday
Paris (AFP) - More than a million people marched in France and strikes disrupted transport and schools on Tuesday during mass protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to push back the retirement age to 64.
Police used teargas in Paris and minor clashes also took place in the western city of Nantes, but the more than 260 union-organised rallies across the country were mostly peaceful.
Labour leaders had pledged to bring France “to a standstill” on the biggest day of action in a series of stoppages this year – a goal that proved beyond their reach judged by the busy roads of major cities.
Only one in five regional and high-speed trains ran, however, and the Paris metro system operated with a skeletal schedule. Rubbish began piling up in the capital after garbage collectors walked off the job.
Clashes between protestors and police took place in Paris and the western city of Nantes
“The government has to take (resistance) into account when there are so many people in the street, when they’re having so much trouble explaining and passing their reform,” CFDT union chief Laurent Berger said as she stood at the head of the Paris rally.
- Unions plan more action -
The interior ministry said 1.28 million people marched across the country, making it one of the biggest protests in decades and slightly bigger than a previous round of demonstrations on January 31.
The CGT union put the figure at 3.5 million.
It appears unlikely that Tuesday’s protests will influence Macron, 45, who has championed pension reform since coming to power in 2017 in order to tackle deficits forecast for the coming decades.
Analysts see the centrist as determined to press ahead, with parliament set to vote on the draft legislation as early as next week.
On Tuesday evening the unions called for an urgent meeting with Macron.
But they also announced to more days of action, including protests on Saturday.
- U-turn? -
Speeches on Tuesday by political opponents and union leaders sought to convince voters that only massive popular resistance and protests could force the government into a U-turn, a regular feature of French democracy.
Graphic showing the average age of retirement for selected countries in the EU
“On the one hand there’s (Macron’s) will, on the other the will of the people,” hard-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon told a demonstration in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille.
“Who should have the last word? Of course it should be the people,” he added, calling for fresh elections or a referendum on the changes.
Although around two in three people are against the reform, around the same number believe it will be enacted, according to a poll by the Elabe survey group published on Monday.
Most people support the strikers, polls also show.
Ali Toure, a 28-year-old construction worker, was waiting for a delayed train north of Paris on Tuesday morning, but said it was “no big deal” if he arrived late to work for a month.
“They’re right to be striking. Manual labour is hard,” he said.
A blockade of oil refineries, underway since Tuesday morning, has the potential to cause severe disruption if it continues in the weeks ahead.
Around a third of teachers were absent on Tuesday, a quarter of civil servants, and half of workers at the state-owned EDF energy utility, according to ministry and company figures.
- ‘Work longer’ -
The government argues that raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, abolishing privileges enjoyed by employees in some sectors, and stiffening the requirements for a full pension are required to balance the pension system.
France lags most of its European neighbours, which have hiked the retirement age to 65 or above.
Its spending on pensions is the third highest among industrialised countries, at the equivalent of 14.5 percent of GDP, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
“If we want to keep this system going, we need to work longer,” Macron said last month.
A refinery workers' strike could lead to shortages at the pumps if it goes on
But unions contest that conclusion and say small increases in contributions could keep it solvent.
They also argue that the proposed measures are unfair and would disproportionately affect low-skilled workers who start their careers early, as well as women.
The bill is now being debated in the upper house senate, with a vote by both houses of parliament expected by the middle of the month or by March 26 at the latest.
Union leaders are set to meet Tuesday evening to decide on their next moves.