French unions call for more protests against pensions reform

Unions transform Labour Day marches into anti-government demonstrations against rise in retirement age

Labour unions in France have called for another national day of protests as they seek to pressure President Emmanuel Macron into withdrawing his unpopular pensions reform.

Tuesday’s decision by the eight biggest unions to continue the fight with strikes and demonstrations on June 6th is a setback for Macron, who has been trying to turn the page on the pensions battle since the law was enacted on April 14th after obtaining clearance from France’s constitutional council.

The move comes a day after unions held large demonstrations to protest against Macron’s law to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The crowds were much larger than usual for a May Day rally: 782,000 people took to the streets on Monday, according to the interior ministry.

The largely peaceful demonstrations were marred by anarchist groups attacking police, destroying property and starting fires in Paris, Nantes and Lyons. Police made about 540 arrests, among the highest single-day totals since the protests began in January.


The government has said repeatedly that it has no intention of going back on the pensions reform, which it says is needed to shore up the finances of France’s costly and complex pensions system as the population ages. In the Élysée Palace, officials are betting that the protests will eventually peter out.

But opposition parties, such as the far-left France Unbowed, and the unions continue to pursue different tactics to derail what Mr Macron has billed as the flagship reform of his year-old second term.

In a bid to calm public anger, Mr Macron asked his prime minister Élisabeth Borne to implement his “100-day” government action plan aimed at helping to improve public services and to enact other policies in sectors such as green investments and education.

The government’s efforts have not stopped the most determined opponents of the pensions reform, who have found new ways of signalling their discontent. Their newest tactic is banging on pots and pans whenever Mr Macron or his ministers appear at public events. Left-wing parties are also trying another long-shot bid to hold a referendum to repeal the increase in the retirement age, which is being examined by the constitutional council ahead of a decision on Wednesday.

The timing of the next union-led protest was chosen to presage a debate on June 8th over a proposal introduced in the National Assembly by Liot, a small group of centrist parliamentarians, to cancel the increase in the retirement age. The unions said in a joint statement on Tuesday that the June 6th industrial action was meant to “allow all workers to make themselves heard by the MPs”.

The Liot initiative has little chance of becoming law because it would also need approval by the Senate. The upper house earlier backed increasing the retirement age and is controlled by the conservative Les Républicains.

It could, however, allow the National Assembly to vote publicly for the first time on the central measures of Mr Macron’s pensions law, which also requires people to work for 43 years – up from about 40 years now – to receive a full pension. Although there were debates in parliament in February and March, MPs did not actually vote on the law itself because the government resorted to passing it using special powers granted to the executive under the 49.3 clause of the French constitution.

The government survived two no-confidence votes that were triggered by opposition parties after it used the 49.3 clause. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023