Strikes spread as French unions intensify the battle over pension reform

  • Protests against plans to raise the retirement age to 64
  • The majority of voters reject reform
  • The government and unions are determined to stand their ground

PARIS (Reuters) – French truck drivers and garbage collectors joined nationwide strikes to protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to overhaul the pension system on Tuesday, as unions stepped up their campaign to try to force a radical change in policy.

There was also widespread disruption to train services, fuel deliveries stopped and teachers stopped working on the sixth day of nationwide protests against Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age to 64.

“I don’t want to work until I’m 64… We’re fighting so we don’t lose our rights,” said Mickael Lermeau, a 50-year-old truck driver, during a protest rally in the city of Saint-Nazaire in western France. , which is one of more than 300 marches scheduled across the country.

“People are fed up and exhausted,” said Jessica Trocum, 41, a union leader at the Lidl supermarket in Saint-Nazaire.

Authorities and local media said several of the protest marches across the country had drawn larger crowds than previous ones held since mid-January, including in Marseille, one of France’s largest cities. There is no data yet on the Paris march.

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This is a critical time for both sides as the government hopes the pension changes will be adopted by parliament by the end of the month.

In an effort to ramp up pressure on lawmakers, France’s most hardline unions said there would be back-to-back strikes this time, which could last for days, including at oil refineries and railways.

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“We will continue until the reform is withdrawn,” Force Ouvriere union president Frédéric Soileau told RTL radio.

Polls show that Macron’s proposal to make people work longer is not very popular with the general public.

“This reform is unfair,” said Aurelie Herkus, who works in public finances in the town of Pont-Audemer in Normandy. “Macron gives tax gifts to companies… He has to stop dealing with the same people over and over again.”

Rotary strikes?

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

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

Domestically, some have already decided to make rolling strikes.

Eric Cellini, representative of the CGT union at TotalEnergies, told Reuters that the strike currently hampering the Gonfreville oil refinery in Normandy is expected to last until Thursday, and another at the Donges refinery in western France until Friday.

“The aim is to renew the strike everywhere,” said UGTT representative Benjamin Tang.

The CFDT, now France’s largest and generally reform-oriented trade union, has not adhered to the rolling strikes and said there may be other forms of protest.

While the government is looking for divisions among the unions in the hope that they will weaken the movement, the CGT and FO, two forces in the transportation and energy sectors, would still be able to cause significant disruption even without the participation of the CFDT.

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The government insists that its reform plan is necessary to ensure that the pension system does not go bankrupt.

“I can understand that not many people would like to work for another two years, but it is necessary to ensure the continuity of the system,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told France 5 TV.

While the Macron camp does not have an absolute majority in parliament, it can count on the support of at least part of the conservative Republicans party.

However, the legislation faces a bumpy road through parliament, and Macron and his government may have to use special constitutional powers to bypass the parliamentary vote – something union leaders have warned against doing.

“Imposing (the law) will lead to a crisis,” CGT leader Philippe Martinez said before the protest march in Paris.

(Reporting by Forest Crelin, Benjamin Mallet, Ingrid Melander, Elisabeth Pinault, Benoit van Overstraeten, Blandine Henault, Dominique Vidalon, Marc Lleras, Jonathan van der Voort, Lily Forode; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Loew and Christina Fincher

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