French mass protests challenge Macron over pensions plan
01 Feb 2023 02:40pm
Protesters march during a demonstration as part of a nationwide day of strikes and rallies for the second time in a month, to protest a planned reform to boost the age of retirement from 62 to 64, in Strasbourg, eastern France on January 31, 2023. - The French President faced a new wave of anger over his plan to reform pensions, with nationwide strikes and protests causing widespread disruption in transport, schools and other public services. (Photo by Frederick FLORIN / AFP)
Union-led protesters came out for mass demonstrations for the second time in less than two weeks, challenging Macron's plan to raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64, a flagship reform of his second mandate.
Half a million people were protesting on Tuesday afternoon in Paris alone, the main CGT union said, higher than the figure of 400,000 it gave for the last day of rallies on January 19.
A police source said the authorities were bracing for up to 1.2 million people to take to the streets nationwide, which would exceed the 1.1 million who came out on January 19.
But Macron has shown no sign of stepping back, insisting on Monday that the reform was "essential".
France at the moment has the lowest qualifying age for a state pension among major European economies.
Arnaud Roure, a 47-year-old transport worker, was among those protesting in Paris.
"Ladies and gentlemen in government, you are wearing people down, you are sucking up all the resources we had left," he said. "You are attacking our bread."
Minor scuffles broke out in Paris in the afternoon between ultras and police, an AFP journalist said. The police said it had arrested 18 people.
- 'Already my knees hurt' -
Tens of thousands also took part in protests in the rest of the country.
"I don't want to wait until I'm 64. I'm a nursery schoolteacher and it's impossible to teach until that late in life," said Sandrine Carre, 52, in the southwestern city of Bordeaux.
"We're always having to crouch down, and already my knees hurt."
The most controversial part of the overhaul is hiking the minimum retirement age, but it also calls for more years worked to qualify for a full pension.
In the southwestern city of Toulouse, flight simulator repairman Christian, 54, said he could not wait until he was 65 to receive the maximum allowance.
"I'm already doing night shifts and it's getting tougher," he said.
Across the country, millions had to adapt their daily lives as workers in transport and education staged walkouts.
Paris metro and suburban rail services were severely restricted, as was intercity travel.
A union source told AFP that 36.5 percent of staff at railway operator SNCF had stopped work, a figure down from 46.3 percent on January 19.
Around a quarter of all nursery and primary school teachers were on strike, according to the education ministry. In middle and high schools, more than half of teachers had stopped work, a teachers' union said.
France's oil industry was mostly paralysed, with the CGT union at energy giant TotalEnergies reporting between 75 and 100 percent of workers on strike.
Almost two out of 10 civil servants were striking by midday, the authorities said, down from 28 percent on January 19.
- 'Get young people involved' -
High school and university students also joined the movement, with a few dozen students at the prestigious Sciences-Po university occupying its main building overnight.
"It's important to get young people involved in the pensions debate," student Jean-Baptiste Bonnet said.
Even a prison, in the southwestern city of Nimes, was blocked by protesting staff, a union source said.
Sixty-one percent of French people support the protest movement, a poll by the OpinionWay survey group showed on Monday -- a rise of three percentage points from January 12.
"The more French people find out about the reform, the less they support it," said Frederic Dabi, a prominent pollster at the Ifop institute.
"This is not good at all for the government."
The government has said the changes are necessary to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.
But opponents point out that the system is not in trouble, insisting pension spending is not out of control.
The government has signalled there could be wiggle room on some of the suggested measures, but not on the age limit.
Macron's centrist allies, short of an absolute majority in parliament, will need votes from conservatives to push through the new legislation. - Jurgen Hecker and Alice Hackman/AFP