Massive French protests challenge Macron over pension plan

Protesters in France launched a new move on Tuesday to pressure President Emmanuel Macron to drop his pension reform plan, with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating and striking the streets disrupting transport and schools.

Trade union-led protesters took part in a second large-scale demonstration in less than two weeks to challenge President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

Police sources said authorities are preparing to bring up to 1.2 million people to the streets across the country.

If confirmed, that number would exceed the 1.1 million who came out against the reforms proposed on January 19. This is already the biggest protest since the last major round of pension reform in 2010.

Philippe Martinez, head of the far-left CGT union, told media on Wednesday that he would “at least hope to have that number again”, adding that 250 protest marches would take place.

Laurent Berger, president of the moderate CFDT union, said even before the country’s biggest protests in Paris began, “there were already more people than last time”.

But Macron showed no signs of backing down, arguing on Monday that reforms were “essential”.

About 11,000 police were mobilized, with 4,000 deployed in Paris alone.

The first marches began in the morning across the country with the participation of several prominent opposition politicians.

– “Definitely lose” –

“Macron will definitely lose,” said far-left former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon as he marched in the southern port city of Marseille.

Millions of people had to find alternative transportation, work from home or take time off to care for school-aged children on Tuesday. Among them were workers in the transport and education sectors.

“It’s not just about pensions, it’s about what kind of society we want,” 59-year-old university professor Martine Bounet told AFP.

Metro and suburban rail services in Paris were severely restricted, as was travel between cities.

A union source told AFP that 36.5% of workers at rail operator SNCF had quit their jobs. It decreased from 46.3% on January 19th.

In the southwestern city of Bordeaux, Cheikh Sadibou Tamamate, 36, said he had reserved a seat on an early morning train to Paris. “Unfortunately, it’s been cancelled,” he said, adding that if there was a train, he would have liked to catch a later train.

About a quarter of nursery and primary school teachers were on strike, according to the Ministry of Education. According to the teachers’ union, more than half of the teachers in middle and high schools had quit their jobs.

France’s oil industry is largely paralyzed, with energy giant Total Energy’s CGT union reporting 75-100% of workers are on strike.

– “The more they don’t stand for it” –

High school and college students also joined the movement, and dozens of students from the famous Po University of Science occupied the main building overnight.

“It’s important to get young people involved in the pensions debate,” student Jean-Baptiste Bonnet told AFP.

Even a prison in the southwestern city of Nimes was blocked by protesting staff, union sources said.

61% of French people support the protests, a poll on Monday by the OpinionWay research group showed. That’s a 3% increase from Jan 12th.

“The more French people know about reform, the less they support it,” said Frédéric Dabi, a prominent pollster at the IFOP Institute.

“This is not good for the government at all,” he told AFP.

The most controversial of the reforms has been raising the minimum retirement age, but it also requires more work to qualify for a full pension.

“I don’t want to work longer,” said Sylvie Dipois, 56, a kitchen helper near Rouen in western France. “My job is hard, and even at 62, I’m exhausted.”

France has the lowest eligibility age for public pensions among the major European economies.

The government says changes are necessary to ensure future funding of the pension system, which is projected to be deficit in the next few years.

Opponents, however, say there is nothing wrong with the system and argue that pension spending is not out of control.

The government has suggested that some of the proposed measures could be adjusted, but not the age limit.

Macron’s centrist allies, who do not have an absolute majority in parliament, need votes from conservatives to push for new legislation.

burs-jh/sjw/kjm Massive French protests challenge Macron over pension plan

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