By Dominique Vidalon and Stephane Mahe
PARIS (Reuters) – Public transport, schools and refinery supplies in France were disrupted on Tuesday as trade unions led a third wave of nationwide strikes against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to make the French work longer before retirement.
Tuesday’s multi-sector walkouts come a day after pension reform legislation began its bumpy passage through parliament, and are a test of Macron’s ability to enact change without a working majority in the National Assembly.
The government says people must work two years longer – meaning for most until the age of 64 – in order to keep the budget of one of the industrial world’s most generous pension systems in the black.
The French spend the largest number of years in retirement among OECD countries – a deeply cherished benefit that a substantial majority are reluctant to give up, polls show.
At the start of a protest march in Paris, union leaders Philippe Martinez of the hardleft CGT and Laurent Berger of the moderate CFDT stood side by side to denounce the pension reform.
“This reform will upend the lives of several generations. If the government stubbornly forges ahead, we will step up our protest with longer and harder actions,” Martinez said.
Berger, whose union traditionally takes a more conciliatory stance, rejected sweeteners offered by the government, such as increasing the lowest pensions.
“These concessions are just patches. Increasing the legal retirement to 64 is the core of this reform and it is deeply unfair. It is a democratic folly for the government to turn a deaf ear to the protest,” he said.
Strike participation appeared lower than a week earlier, data showed, but the government will be watching street protests to gauge how strong public opposition remains.
“We’re worn out by work,” pensioner Bernard Chevalier said at a protest in the Riviera city of Nice. “Retirement should be a second life, not a waiting room for death.”
Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt dismissed opposition accusations that the government was in denial over the scale of public protests, and said change was needed.
“The pension system is loss-making and if we care about the system, we must save it,” the minister told RMC radio.
‘YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND’
Strike participation among teachers fell to 14% from 26% the previous week, while among workers at state-run energy giant EDF it was 30%, down from 40%.
TotalEnergies said deliveries of refined oil products from its sites had been suspended. Power production was down by some 4.3 gigawatts (GW) – roughly 6% of capacity.
The government says the reform will allow gross savings of more than 17 billion euros ($18 billion) per year by 2030.
Unions and leftwing opponents say the money can be found elsewhere, notably from the wealthy, and that workers need protecting.
“Those of you who support this reform don’t understand how tough jobs are, what it’s like to wake up with an aching back,” Rachel Keke, the first cleaner in France to become a lawmaker, told a raucous debate in parliament on Monday.
“You don’t understand what it’s like to take medication to get through the work day. You don’t understand because it’s not a world you live in,” the leftist lawmaker continued to applause from opposition benches.
Conservative opponents, whose support Macron needs for a working majority in the National Assembly, want concessions for those who start working young.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has offered to let some people who start work early also retire early – but Les Republicains lawmakers are divided over whether the proposed starting age of 20-21 is low enough.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Dominique Vidalon, Tangi Salaun, Benjamin Mallet, Forrest Crellin and America Hernandez; writing by Richard Lough and Geert De Clercq; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Kylie MacLellan)