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By Antony Paone and Dominique Vidalon
PARIS – Striking workers disrupted French refinery deliveries, public transport and schools on Tuesday in a second day of nationwide protests over President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to make people work longer before retirement.
Huge crowds marched through cities across France to denounce a reform that raises the retirement age by two years to 64 and poses a test of Macron’s ability to push through change now that he has lost his working majority in parliament.
On the rail networks, only one in three high-speed TGV trains were operating and even fewer local and regional trains. Services on the Paris metro were thrown into disarray.
Marching behind banners reading “No to the reform” or “We won’t give up,” many said they would take to the streets as often as needed for the government to back down.
“We won’t drive until we’re 64!” bus driver Isabelle Texier said at a protest in Saint-Nazaire on the Atlantic coast.
“For the president, it’s easy. He sits in a chair …, he can work until he’s 70, even,” she said. “We can’t ask roof layers to work until 64, it’s not possible.”
After Jan. 19, when more than a million people took to the streets on the first nationwide strike day, unions said initial data from protests across the country showed a bigger turnout.
“It’s better than on the 19th … It’s a real message sent to the government, saying we don’t want the 64 years,” Laurent Berger, who leads CFDT, France’s largest union, said ahead of the Paris march.
Opinion polls show a substantial majority of the French oppose the reform, but Macron intends to stand his ground. The reform is “vital” to ensuring the viability of the pension system, he said on Monday.
Some felt resigned amid bargaining between Macron’s ruling alliance and conservative opponents who are more open to pension reform than the left.
“There’s no point in going on strike. This bill will be adopted in any case,” said 34-year-old Matthieu Jacquot, who works in the luxury sector.
For unions, who were likely to announce more industrial actions later in the day, the challenge will be maintaining walkouts at a time when high inflation is eroding salaries.
Though protest numbers appeared to be up, some initial data showed strike participation down on Tuesday from Jan. 19.
A union source said some 36.5% of SNCF rail operator workers were on strike by midday – down nearly 10% from Jan. 19 – even if disruption to train traffic was largely similar.
Utility group EDF said 40.3% of workers were on strike, down from 44.5%.
Unions and companies at times disagreed on whether this strike was more or less successful than the previous one. For TotalEnergies, less workers at its refineries had downed tools, but the CGT said there were more.
At a local level, some announced “Robin Hood” operations unauthorised by the government. In the southwestern Lot-et-Garonne area, the local CGT trade union branch cut power to several speed cameras and disabled smart power meters.
“When there is such a massive opposition, it would be dangerous for the government not to listen,” said Mylene Jacquot, secretary general of CFDT‘s civil servants branch.
The pension system reform would yield an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.18 billion) in annual pension contributions, according to Labour Ministry estimates. Unions say there are other ways to raise revenue, such as taxing the super rich or asking employers or well-off pensioners to contribute more.
“This reform is unfair and brutal,” said Luc Farre, the secretary general of the civil servants’ UNSA union.
French power supply was down by about 5% or 3.3 gigawatts (GW) as workers at nuclear reactors and thermal plants joined the strike, EDF data showed.
TotalEnergies said deliveries of petroleum products from its French sites had been halted, but customers’ needs were met.
The government made some concessions while drafting the legislation. Macron had originally wanted the retirement age to be set at 65, while the government is also promising a minimum pension of 1,200 euros a month.