France: Protests over pension reform intensify, more strikes looming

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Strikes and protests across the country, including on small islands, are a crucial test for both President Emmanuel Macron and his opponents. The government says it is determined to push through on Macron’s key election promise to reform France’s pension system. And strong popular resentment would strengthen efforts by unions and left-wing lawmakers to block the bill, which would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

In the capital, police said 87,000 people took to the streets, up from 80,000 in the first major pension protest on Jan. 19, when authorities said 1 million people demonstrated across the country. Union estimates had doubled that number.

The official number of protesters nationwide on Tuesday was not immediately known.

The overall peaceful march through Paris was marred by scattered clashes between a small group of black-clad radicals and riot police, who fired tear gas into Les Invalides, the site of Napoleon’s tomb towards the end of the stretching march. by the city. Police reported 30 arrests.

Some 11,000 police officers were on duty at some 250 protests across the country.

“Today the government is in a corner. You just have to withdraw your reform,” Erik Meyer of the Sud Rail union, one of the eight who organized the march, said on BFM TV.

Veteran leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon celebrated “a historic day” of protests and predicted Macron’s defeat.

“It’s not often that we see such a massive mobilization,” he said, speaking in the southern city of Marseille. “It is a form of insurrection of the citizens.”

On the other hand, Macron on Monday defended the reform as “essential”. His prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, insisted this past weekend that raising the retirement age to 64 “is no longer negotiable.”

The protests were not limited to the big cities of France. In Ouessant, a small western island of about 800 people at the tip of Brittany, about 100 protesters gathered outside the office of mayor Denis Palluel and marched, he said.

Palluel told The Associated Press that the prospect of having to work longer alarmed the island’s sailors with arduous jobs on the high seas.

“Retiring at a reasonable age is important, because life expectancy is not very long,” he said.

In addition to the protests, strikes disrupted services across France on Tuesday.

Rail operator SNCF said most train services have been canceled in the Paris region, all other regions and France’s flagship high-speed network linking major cities and towns. The Paris metro was also hit hard by station closures and cancellations.

Power workers also showed their support for the strikes by temporarily reducing power supplies, without causing blackouts, power producer EDF said.

Jamila Sariac, 60, a civil servant, said the pension system must be left alone.

“Social protection is a milestone of our society, a milestone that the government wants to break,” he said, adding that strikes would pressure the government more effectively than demonstrations. “We owe it to our elders who contributed to the wealth of France. ”

Construction worker Said Belaiba was among the commuters whose morning train from Paris to the city of Lyon was cancelled, forcing him to wait. Still, the 62-year-old said he was opposed to the planned reform.

“My job is physically exhausting,” he said. “You cannot continue with more than 64 years.”

The strikes also affected schools, with the Education Ministry reporting that around a quarter of teachers were out of work, less than in the first round of protests.

French media also reported strikes at oil refineries. Radio station France Inter played music instead of its usual morning talk shows and apologized to its listeners that employees were on strike.

French unions issued a joint call on Tuesday for two more days of strikes and protests next week against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to reform the pension system.

“The government must listen to the massive rejection of this project and withdraw it,” said Patricia Drevon, of the Force Ouvriere union, at a joint press conference with other labor leaders where new protests were announced for Tuesday, February 7 and Saturday, February 11.

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