France hit by strikes as Macron and unions dig in on pensions

Workers walk out of schools, trains, airlines and oil refineries on second day of protests

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

France was laid low by another round of strikes on Tuesday with neither unions nor President Emmanuel Macron showing any sign of backing down in a battle over the retirement age.

Schools, trains and flights were brought to a standstill in a second wave of nationwide protests against Mr Macron's plans to raise the pension age from 62 to 64.

More than 1.27 million people took part in the nationwide protests and 87,000 people joined the Paris protest, the French Interior Ministry said.

Left-wing figurehead Jean-Luc Melenchon said Mr Macron was "certain to lose" in his struggle to get the reform past MPs and protesters.

"Nobody wants his reform. The more time passes, the more opposition grows," Mr Melenchon told reporters at a rally in Marseille.

A poll published on Monday showed that while 56 per cent of French people saw some kind of pension reform as necessary, support for it had dropped five points since before the first strikes on January 19.

Protesters in Marseille. AFP

At the same time, 61 per cent said they supported protests against Mr Macron's measures, up three points since January 12, according to the OpinionWay poll.

Protest organisers are hoping millions will take to the streets on Tuesday, with a major demonstration planned in Paris.

Railway operator SNCF said only one in three high-speed trains were likely to run, while most Paris metro services were severely disrupted. Unions said at least three quarters of TotalEnergies oil refinery workers were on strike.

Nonetheless, Mr Macron is holding firm in his position that the changes are necessary to prevent France's welfare state from becoming unaffordable.

The current pension age of 62 is unusually low among wealthy countries, but would rise initially to 63, then to 64 in 2030, under Mr Macron's proposed reform.

"I hope it is passed in order to preserve the pensions of our children and grandchildren," Violette Spillebout, an MP from Mr Macron's centrist party, told French television on Tuesday.

She accused opponents of obstructing and said: "The streets will not dictate the parliamentary debate."

The left-wing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft legislation.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said the pension age is "no longer negotiable" even as minor changes are considered.

Mr Macron's bloc does not have an absolute majority and will need votes from elsewhere, most likely the centre-right Republicans, to push through the legislation.

Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT union, urged protesters to keep up pressure on the government.

“They want to show determination, so they must face the same determination from our end,” he said.

Updated: January 31, 2023, 7:07 PM