Strikes Spread as French Unions Intensify Pension Reform Fight

France’s nationwide strike against a planned pension reform, which seriously disrupted train services, shut schools and halted fuel deliveries on Tuesday, will spill into Wednesday as unions stepped up their campaign to force a U-turn on a deeply unpopular policy.

This is a critical time for both sides since French President Emmanuel Macron’s government is hoping his plan to raise the pension age by two years to 64 will be adopted by parliament by the end of the month.

Looking to pile pressure on lawmakers, France’s more hardline unions said there would be rolling strikes this time, which could go on for days, at least in some sectors.

The CGT union said workers had voted to prolong strikes at all TotalEnergies sites.

“The real fight starts now,” said Marin Guillotin, FO union representative at the Donges refinery in western France.

“We haven’t been heard or listened to. We are using the only means we have left: it’s the hard strike … we are not going to give up.”

Trains will continue to be disrupted on Wednesday, as will the Paris metro system, though to a slightly lesser degree than on Tuesday, the SNCF and RATP transportation companies running them said.

Truck drivers and garbage collectors had joined the strike on Tuesday, as it extended to more sectors.

Across the country, many protest rallies attracted bigger crowds than previous ones organised since mid-January, including in Marseille, one of France’s biggest cities, authorities and local media said.

The CGT union said 700,000 marched in Paris, local media said, more than at any time since the start of the protests. Police put the number at 81,000.

There were some clashes in the margins of the Paris rally, and police said 22 had been arrested.

Macron’s proposal to make people work longer is deeply unpopular amongst the wider public, opinion polls show.

“This reform is unfair,” said Aurelie Herkous, who works in public finance in the Normandy town of Pont Audemer. “Macron offers tax gifts to companies … he’s got to stop coming down on the same people time after time.”

France’s leading trade unions have so far acted with rare unity, but the coming days and weeks will be a test of their ability to maintain that united front.

Union leaders will meet in the evening to decide on the next steps.

The CFDT, now France’s biggest trade union and generally reform-minded, has not committed to the rolling strikes and has said there could be other forms of protest.

While the government will be looking for divisions to emerge between the unions in the hope it weakens the movement, the CGT and FO, which are powerful within the transport and energy sectors, would still be able to bring significant disruption even without the CFDT participation.

The government insists its reform plan is essential to ensure the pension system does not go bust.

“I can understand that not many people want to work two more years, but it’s necessary to ensure the viability of the system,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told France 5 TV.

The Senate, where LR has a majority, was likely, overnight, to adopt the bill’s article 7, that pushes retirement age to 64.

While Macron’s camp does not have an absolute majority in parliament, it can count on the support of at least part of the conservative Les Republicains (LR) party.

Even so, the legislation is having a bumpy path through parliament and Macron and his government may yet be forced to use special constitutional powers to bypass the lower house of parliament – something union leaders have warned him not to do.

“Forcing (the bill) through would spark a crisis,” CGT leader Philippe Martinez said ahead of the Paris protest march.

Arab Observer

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