People turned out from early Tuesday to reject the pension reform

Paris (AFP) - Fuel deliveries and public transport were severely disrupted in France on Tuesday as unions kicked off a fresh day of protests against a pensions reform that would push back the retirement age for millions.

Unions have vowed to bring the country to a standstill with strikes over the proposed changes, which include raising the minimum retirement age to 64 from 62 and increasing the number of years people have to make contributions for a full pension.

“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 at a central Paris demonstration.

President Emmanuel Macron put the pensions plan at the centre of his re-election campaign last year, and his cabinet says the changes are essential to prevent the system from falling into deficit in coming years.

But they face fierce pushback from both parliament and the street, with almost two in three people across the country supporting protests against it, according to a poll by the Elabe survey group published Monday.

Ali Toure, a 28-year-old construction worker, on Tuesday morning was waiting for a delayed train north of Paris, but said it was “no big deal” if he arrived late to work for a month.

The proposed minimum retirement age of 64 has crystallised opposition

“They’re right to be striking. Manual labour is hard,” he said.

Former left-wing presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon was at a demonstration in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille.

“On the one hand there’s (Macron’s) will, on the other the will of the people,” he said.

“Who should have the last word? Of course it should be the people,” he added, calling for fresh elections or a referendum on the reform.

The hard-line CGT union said fuel deliveries from refineries across France had been blocked from Tuesday morning, which could see petrol stations running short if the protests continue.

- More than a million expected -

Unions have warned of rolling strikes on public transport that could paralyse parts of the country for weeks on end.

Police expect 1.1 million to 1.4 million people to hit the streets in total, a source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The upper limit of that range would mean stronger opposition than during the five previous days of rallies that have taken place since mid-January.

On the unions’ side, Frederic Souillot, leader of hard-left union Force Ouvriere, told RTL radio he expected more than two million people to march.

The walkout by railway workers has seen 80 percent of regional and high-speed trains cancelled

The biggest day of demonstrations so far brought 1.27 million people to the street on January 31, according to official figures.

Only one in five regional and high-speed trains were running.

By midday, around 39 percent of workers at state rail operator SNCF had walked off the job, a union source told AFP – the highest since this year’s first strike against the pension reform on January 19.

Meanwhile the education ministry put the figure among teachers around 33 percent – well short of the 60 claimed by unions.

Worker representatives are set to meet Tuesday evening to decide on their next moves.

- ‘Need to work longer’ -

The government has argued that the changes are crucial to keep France’s pensions system from falling into deep deficit in the coming years.

A refinery workers' strike could lead to shortages at the pumps if it goes on

“If we want to keep this system going, we need to work longer,” Macron said last month.

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.

According to the Elabe survey, 56 percent of respondents said they supported rolling strikes, and 59 percent backed the call to bring the country to a standstill.

The bill is now being debated in the upper house of parliament, after two weeks of heated discussion in the lower house that ended without even reaching a vote on raising the retirement age.

The centrist government is hoping to push through the reform in parliament with help from the right, without resorting to a controversial mechanism that would bypass a parliamentary vote but risk fuelling more protests.

“We can’t have a single vote missing” when the bill returns to the lower house, Macron’s parliamentary chief Aurore Berge told lawmakers Tuesday, hoping to quell reservations among several figures in the governing party.