A second day of mass protests is underway in France with unions hoping to pressure President Emmanuel Macron into scrapping a “universal” pension reform that he insists is “indispensable” to preserve the Gallic social model.
Travel chaos continued for the sixth straight day with the vast majority of national rail links axed and the Paris metro a near-standstill.
Airlines were told to cut 20 per cent of flights to avoid gridlock caused by striking air traffic controllers. Three in five Eurostars are running.
But early afternoon, unions conceded that turnout was lower than last Thursday’s day of demonstrations, which saw more than 800,000 people in the street.
In schools, strike numbers were down from a third to lower than a fifth, according to education ministry figures. Unions put the figure far higher – around 50 per cent.
The protests come a day before the government is due to unveil the details of the reform, which aims to replace a system of 42 different “special regimes” – some which allow workers to retire in their early 50s – with a points-based system it says will be far fairer.
Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union – the biggest among rail workers – reiterated his demand that the entire reform be scrapped.
“The pension system needs to be improved, not broken,” he said during a strike march in central Paris.
Calling the reform “the cement of all discontent”, Mr Martinez said: “There is anger: either they listen or carry on as if it didn’t exist.”
Blasting Mr Macron’s “lack of humility”, he called on the private sector to join mainly state sector workers in downing tools. Hospital interns were due to demonstrate, while police said they would protest on Wednesday morning. Seven out France’s eight oil refineries were blocked.
Daniel Teirlynck, rail worker with the UNSA union said: “We haven’t won a strike in 25 years but here, with this show of force, we feel very strong and (the government) appears jumpy.
“We will stand firm. We know that it won’t be resolve in six days. 1995 (when a three-week strike against pension reform ended in government capitulation) didn’t last six days.”
Mr Macron briefly broke his silence during a summit on Ukraine in Paris on Monday night to call the reform “indispensable”. He is due to meet top ministers this evening.
The reform was supposed to be the fruit of two years of discussions with unions. In August, Mr Macron promised the public would also have its say in debates in the wake of the yellow vest revolt, when he was accused of being "Jupiterian".
“We will build this reform together. Nobody has the right solution,” he said.
But given the reform’s technical nature, public response has been lukewarm while hardline unions claim they have been kept in the dark.
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Xavier Bertrand, Right-wing head of the Hauts-de-France region, blasted the government’s “catastrophic method” as a “case study in amateurism”. The Macron administration had, he said, further muddied the waters with last-minute proposals, such as raising the de facto retirement age from 62 to 64 to plug a deficit or only applying the changes to new contributors.
“He has succeeded in frightening 30 million working people,” he told Le Parisien.
His claim appears backed by polls, with one on Sunday suggesting 76 per cent of the French back pension reform but 64 per cent don’t trust the Macron government to do it. The same IFOP poll suggested that 59 per cent of the French blame the government more than strikers for the chaos, saying it should have spelled the details of the reform out earlier.
Even four top economists who advised Mr Macron during his presidential campaign confessed that the debate over the pension shake-up had “got off to a bad start”.
“If the reform is unfair and creates anxiety, delays won’t resolve anything. If, as we believe, it is socially fair and economically efficient, why delay?,” they asked.
"Bring on Wednesday," said Laurent Pietraszewski of Mr Macron’s LREM party.