A fresh wave of strikes hit France on Tuesday as labour unions vowed to bring the country to a standstill in an attempt to force President Emmanuel Macron to abandon his planned rise in the retirement age.
In a tactical change, some unions representing public transport workers, truckers and nuclear plant technicians said they would be going on rolling strikes, unlike the less-disruptive day-long walkouts that have taken place since January. Almost two-thirds of primary schoolteachers were on strike, and one-quarter of civil servants. France’s national railway cancelled three-quarters of trains, while airlines cancelled about one-third of their scheduled flights.
“We are going into a higher gear,” Philippe Martinez, head of the hardline CGT union, told the Journal du Dimanche. “The mobilisations will continue and grow until the government hears what workers are saying.”
By mid-afternoon, energy sector workers cut production at EDF’s nuclear reactors and other power plants to remove roughly a fifth of the usual daily electricity consumption. That led France to import electricity from its neighbours.
“It’s one of the biggest strikes and impacts on the energy sector we’ve seen,” said Kepler analyst Emeric de Vigan.
Macron’s vow to revamp the country’s pension system was one of his central re-election pledges last year after he tried a more ambitious overhaul in 2019, which he abandoned because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
His current proposal, which would raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and require 43 years of work to earn a full pension, is a more modest one that would be gradually introduced by 2030. Still, pensions reform has become a totemic issue for Macron, a symbol of his reformist ambitions and capacity to enact policies after losing his parliamentary majority last year.
The French president argues that raising the retirement age is the only way to prevent deficits from piling up and preserve the system, which relies on active workers to fund retiree payments, as the population ages. He has ruled out other approaches such as raising taxes, lowering pensions or increasing the public debt.
But with three-quarters of the public against raising the retirement age and unions carrying out the biggest protests in decades, it is not clear that the government has the votes to get the changes through the National Assembly. Macron’s centrist alliance consists of about 250 MPs so the government needs to win over opposition politicians to reach 289 votes, or convince some to abstain to get to a majority.
With the far-right and left opposed to the change, the government has been negotiating with the conservative Les Republicains, who hold 61 seats and have long supported raising the retirement age. But a splinter faction in LR has emerged that is trying to wring out more concessions.
As a last resort, the government can over-rule parliament and pass the law by decree. But such a move risks generating a political crisis that could spin out of control.
“The protest movement will not cause the government to pull the text or back down from changing the retirement age,” said Marc Ferracci, an MP from Macron’s Renaissance party.
The government has put the draft law on an accelerated timetable so the process must finish before the end of the month. A final vote could be held as early as March 16. “No one wants to drag this out,” Ferracci added.
Much will depend on whether public support for the protests erodes as they become more disruptive, although a recent poll from Elabe showed 56 per cent support the unions’ move to rolling strikes.
Benjamin Tange, a CGT representative for TotalEnergies refinery workers, expressed confidence that the public would support the harsher tactics because raising the retirement age was so deeply unpopular. His union said they had begun blocking deliveries out of all seven of the country’s petrol refineries, a tactic that they used last year during a strike to secure higher pay that caused widespread petrol shortages.
“We’re prepared to make this last as long as we need to,” Tange said.
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