French unions declare victory in protest against Macron’s pension reform

Second day of marches and strikes planned after large crowds demonstrate over plan to raise retirement age to 64

Trade Union leaders in France declared victory after the first day of protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age to 64 and increase to 43 the number of years one must work to collect a full pension.

A second day of strikes and marches will take place on Tuesday, January 31st.

The interior ministry said more than 1.2 million people marched in France, 40,000 of them in Paris. The unions said there were more than two million protesters, including 400,000 in Paris, where police diverted an overflow to an alternate route.

Youths in black hoodies hurled projectiles near the Place de la Bastille. Police fired tear gas and made about 30 arrests.

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“Mobilisation is beyond what we expected,” said Laurent Berger, the leader of France’s largest union, the CFDT. The figure 64 was on everyone’s lips. “CFDT militants, you are very, very numerous in all the marches to denounce the injustice of retirement at age 64,” Mr Berger tweeted. “Thank you all”.

Marches took place in Bordeaux, Marseille, Rennes, and Lyon, where 17 people were arrested.

Public transport was severely affected throughout France, with one in three high-speed TGV trains and only one in 10 regional TER trains running. Three Paris metro lines were closed completely, and ten other lines operated only during rush hour.

Traffic at Orly airport was reduced by about 20 per cent. Electricity production decreased 10 per cent because 45 per cent of staff at the EDF company were on strike. Public radio stations replaced news programmes with music. Seventy per cent of primary school teachers went on strike, and at least one third of schools in the Paris region were closed, according to teachers’ unions.

The mood in the protest marches was festive and defiant. Fabien Roussel, who was the Communist Party’s presidential candidate last year, danced in the street with militants from the anti-globalisation movement Attac, to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, but singing the words “We want to live.”

Mr Roussel called for a referendum on the law, saying “if the government is so convinced that the reform is just and good, let them hold a vote!”

Speaking on the Place de la République, Green party leader Marine Tondelier said, “It is not only the defence of our pensions that is at stake. It’s the beginning of the end of Macronisme.”

Mr Macron had travelled to Barcelona with 11 cabinet ministers to sign a treaty of friendship with Spain. He called the pension reform “just and responsible” and called on protest organisers to ensure “that these legitimate expressions of disagreement be done without too much inconvenience for our compatriots, without excess, violence or damage to property”.

The credibility of both Mr Macron and the unions, whose membership has dwindled for decades, is at stake. He wants to be remembered as a reformer, and they need to prove that they can mitigate the effects of the “sweet and sour” reform.

Though 68 per cent of the population oppose the reform, according to an Ifop poll, “sweeteners” such as maintaining the retirement at age 62 for those with disabilities, allowing those who begin work before age 20 to retire early, and raising the minimum pension rates are popular.

Despite wide opposition to the reform, only 51 per cent of respondents told pollsters they supported yesterday’s “day of action”, far fewer than supported earlier strikes.

More than two thirds of the population, 68 per cent, believe the reform will take effect, including 55 per cent of supporters of the far left France Unbowed. Less than one third believe the reform will be withdrawn as a result of protest.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times