A record number of people took to the streets in France on Tuesday, amid a wave of strikes over government plans to raise the retirement age to 64.
Industrial action impacted transport links and electricity production, with more than 2.5 million marching across the country, according to unions.
The Interior Ministry put the number of protesters against the law — a flagship reform of President Emmanuel Macron — at 1.27 million, still higher than the historic record set during past protests against pension reforms in 2010.
France’s government has so far remained resolute and insisted the changes will go ahead. But Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said at the end of Tuesday the reform “raises questions and doubts”.
“We hear them,” she wrote in a tweet, following the protests involving 11,000 police officers.
A wave of strikes
Strikes gripped the country throughout the day, bringing severe disruption to energy and transport sectors.
TotalEnegies says between 75% and 100% of workers at its refineries and fuel depots walked out, while electricity supplier EDF said they’re monitoring a drop in power to the national grid equivalent to three nuclear power plants.
“Following the call for a strike, shipments of products from TotalEnergies sites are interrupted today but TotalEnergies will continue to ensure supplies to its service station network and its customers,” the group’s management said.
In EDF power stations, strikers reduced loads by “nearly 3,000 MW” on Monday night, but without causing any cuts, the company said.
Today’s demos, happening in several large cities, such as Montpellier, Nantes, Rennes and Marseille, alongside Paris, were even more massive than the first, earlier this month.
Authorities say some 1.12 million protesters turned out on 19 January, while unions say more than two million people took part in demonstrations at that time.
At the heart of their grievances is a plan by Emmanuel Macron’s government to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030, with a new law to enter into force in September 2023.
In order to receive a full pension, the government’s proposal says it will be necessary to work for at least 43 years. By age 67, workers who haven’t been active that long will still receive a full pension.
Those who started to work earlier will be able to retire earlier, while disabled workers will be able to retire early. Injured workers will also be allowed to retire early, the proposal says.
The current special retirement plans for some public workers will no longer be applicable for new recruits but the new proposal would raise the minimum pension by €100 per month.
France’s trade unions and left-wing parties say that the proposed changes are not needed in order to fund France’s pension system. Some have argued instead for higher employee and employer contributions and a crackdown on tax evasion.
They claim that the plan will penalise those who are most vulnerable and increase inequalities.
Transport network hit by strike action
The government had warned in advance of Tuesday’s strike about likely disruption to France’s transport network.
In the Paris region the metro and local rail services are “very disrupted” say officials. Long distance TGV train services are also impacted, as are regional trains with intercity services almost at a standstill.
Rail operator SNCF said only one in three high-speed TGV trains will operate on Tuesday while disruptions are also expected at French airports and on transnational rail services.
However in Lyon there were at least some bus and tram services running Tuesday morning, and there was a noticeable increase in the numbers of cars on the road as commuters made alternative plans to get to work.
At Bobigny bus station in Paris, pensioner Marie-Hélène Plautin left an hour and a half early for her medical appointment, a journey that normally only takes half an hour by tram.
“I have an appointment with a doctor for the first time in Saint-Denis. Since I know that this strike is going to take place, I wonder if I will be able to go,” she said Tuesday morning.
In Bordeaux, Josselin and Alicia Frigier, 40, have just returned from Madrid and after spending several hours on the bus, their train to La Rochelle has been cancelled.
“Instead, they were offered a one-hour train ride and a three-hour bus ride,” said Alicia, while her husband conceded that the strike “is surely for a good reason.”
Macron, who is partly hitching his five-year term on the success of the reform, deemed it “indispensable” on Monday.
“Mr. Macron is certain to lose,” replied Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing opposition, believing that France was “going through a historic day”.