Public transport, schools and refinery supplies were disrupted on Tuesday in France as trade unions led a third wave of nationwide strikes against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to make the French work longer before retirement.
Tuesday’s multi-sector walkouts and street protests come a day after pension reform legislation began its bumpy passage through parliament, and are a test of Macron’s ability to enact change without a working majority in the National Assembly.
The government says people must work two years longer – meaning for most until the age of 64 – in order to keep the budget of one of the industrial world’s most generous pension systems in the black.
The French spend the largest number of years in retirement among OECD countries – a deeply cherished benefit that a substantial majority are reluctant to give up, polls show.
“We’re worn out by work,” pensioner Bernard Chevalier said at a protest in the Riviera city of Nice, adding he would keep protesting until the government dropped its plan to raise the retirement age.
“Retirement should be a second life, not a waiting room for death.”
Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt dismissed opposition accusations that the government was in denial over the scale of street protests across the country last month, and said change was needed.
“The pension system is loss-making and if we care about the system, we must save it,” the minister told RMC radio.
Philippe Martinez, leader of the hardleft CGT trade union, said Macron was playing “a dangerous game” in pressing ahead with a deeply unpopular reform at a time households are facing high inflation.
TotalEnergies (TTEF.PA) said deliveries of refined oil products from its sites had been suspended due to the strike. Electricity production was down just 3 gigawatts (GW) – roughly 4% of capacity.
The government says the reform will allow gross savings of over 17 billion euros ($18 billion) per year by 2030.
Unions and leftwing opponents say the money can be found elsewhere, notably from the wealthy, and that workers need protecting.
Those of you who support this reform do not understand how tough jobs are, you don’t understand what it’s like to wake up with an aching back,” Rachel Keke, the first cleaner in France to become a lawmaker, told a raucous debate in parliament on Monday.
“You don’t know what it is like to take medication to get through the work day. You don’t know because it’s not a world you live in,” the leftist lawmaker continued to applause from opposition benches.
Conservative opponents, whose support Macron needs for a working majority in the National Assembly, want concessions for those who start working young.
More than a million people marched in cities across France during the first two days of strike action in January, as public pressure intensified against a government that insists it will stand its ground on the reforms main planks.
In parliament, more than 20,000 amendments lie before lawmakers, the vast majority from the leftwing Nupes alliance. However, because the reform has been tacked onto an annual social security bill, the government may send it to the Senate after just two weeks.
In a concession to conservatives, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has offered to let some people who start work early also retire early – but Les Republicains (LR) lawmakers are divided over whether the proposed starting age of 20-21 is low enough.