France hit by second day of protests against Macron’s pension reform

Unions announce two further strike days against plan to raise retirement age to 64

Hundreds of thousands protested across France on Tuesday in a second “national day of action” against President Emmanuel Macron’s planned reform of the pension system, which would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030.

The Communist CGT union said 2.8 million people took part in the demonstrations, while the interior ministry put the figure at 1.272 million. Though there is always a large gap between the estimates of the unions and ministry, both sides agreed that participation had increased since a first day of protest on January 19th. Half a million people marched in Paris, according to the CGT. Police said it was 87,000. Twelve days earlier, the CGT counted 400,000 in the capital, the police 80,000.

Trade unions on Tuesday night announced two further strike days, on February 7th and 11th.

“Nothing justifies such a massive and brutal reform,” Patricia Drevon of the Force Ouvriere union read from a statement. The unions particularly object to prime minister Elisabeth Borne having said the retirement age of 64 “is not negotiable”.


Turnout was up in most French cities: 45,000 demonstrators in Lyon, 7,000 more than on January 19th. Marseilles set a 20-year record, with 40,000, up from 26,000.

French riot police stood three deep, decked out in black uniforms with robo-cop body armour, helmets, and visors, to protect Mr Macron’s favourite restaurant. Nine days earlier, the French president had invited German chancellor Olaf Scholz to the left bank brasserie La Rotonde, where Mr Macron celebrated his 2017 election victory.

“It’s Macron’s canteen! They’re protecting the rich!” demonstrators shouted.

Paris police arrested 30 people, described as “mostly radical elements”. As the last demonstrators dispersed on Tuesday night, the protest route, from the Place de l’Italie to Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides, was littered with debris, spent tear gas cannisters and the remains of rubber crowd dispersal grenades. Clouds of tear gas hung over the boulevard Montparnasse.

Anarchists and hooligans appeared late in the march, at the head of the procession, in front of the trade union delegations. They burned rubbish bins, knocked over a skip filled with recycled bottles and hurled paving stones at police. Banks were vandalised.

This is marching season à la française. We have been here so many times before that no one keeps track. Gendarmes spilling out of blue vans. Riot police hovering around paddy wagons. Traffic is heavy because public transport has shut down. The ambience is tense and volatile; people scurry, except for the protesters, who march slowly and shout and sing at the top of their lungs.

There is a certain nervousness in the government these days. An Elabe poll last week showed that opposition to the reform has risen from two-thirds to three-quarters of the population. Most worrying for Mr Macron, old-age pensioners, his core support group, have turned against it. He lost his absolute majority in last year’s legislative elections, and the support of parliamentarians in his own Renaissance coalition and especially his allies among the conservative Républicains is shaky.

Jacques Chirac caved in on the issue, at least twice. Nicolas Sarkozy toughed out 14 national protest days in 2010 and raised the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Mr Macron has already reformed the labour code and unemployment compensation. This mother of all reforms will probably pass too, but first the entire script must be played out in three theatres.

At the Élysée, Mr Macron has staked his legacy on economic reform. At the National Assembly, deputies are wavering in the face of objections from their constituencies. And in the street, the trade unions and France’s ever-restive population must mark the moment, as a matter of principle and honour.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times