Unions vow to disrupt France in March as protest ranks thin
PARIS (AP) — The ranks of marchers were thinner during a new wave of strikes and protests in France Thursday against an unpopular pension reform, but unions put the accent on a planned March 7 general strike which they hope will bring the country to its knees.
The fifth round of nationwide protests that began last month came a day before the deadline for lawmakers in the lower house of parliament to wrap up what has been one of the most rancorous debates in recent years. It concerns the flagship policy of President Emmanuel Macron’s second term, which would raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64.
There were fewer disruptions during Thursday’s protests than recently, with the Paris Metro and most main line train services working normally and most schools unaffected. However, a railway worker walkout disrupted high-speed TGV trains and regional services. Almost a third of flights were canceled at Paris’ second busiest airport, Orly.
In addition, classes were canceled at a handful of universities due to student blockades.
Paris police put the number of people marching in the French capital at an estimated 37,000. The CGT union, one of eight backing the protest, put the number at 300,000.
The CGT claimed that 1.3 million people marched Thursday, compared to 2.5 million last Saturday. There was no official national estimate.
“These reforms are robbing people of their rights. I’m here today to show (President) Macron that he cannot be deaf and that there are consequences when you try to defy the majority of the country,” said Pierre-Yves Toudic, a 34-year-old engineer who was protesting at the Bastille Plaza in central Paris.
The proposed pension reform has unleashed the most turbulent debate in years in the National Assembly, with uncertainty looming over the final outcome.
Opponents filed thousands of amendments to delay debate, now making it uncertain if the lower house will actually get to the critical Article 7, which sets out the change to the age of retirement, before the Friday midnight deadline. The pension bill — whether or not it has been fully debated — will then automatically go to the Senate for consideration.
Lawmakers on Thursday afternoon were debating amendments related to the second of 20 articles in the bill. The legislative process is not expected to end for several weeks.
Despite opinion polls consistently showing growing opposition to the reform and his own popularity shrinking, Macron insists that he’s living up to the key pledge he made when he swept to power in 2017 and before his April 2022 reelection.
“The current pension system is not equitable, not fair. Some people can receive a pension of more than 10,000 euros ($10,706) per month for example,” said 34-year-old economics professor Clemence Lonchal.
The powerful hard-left union CGT is keeping its eye on March 7, when unions are threatening to bring France to its knees. CGT head Philippe Martinez said the strategy was to “keep up pressure on lawmakers” to reject the bill. The union this week called on support from trash collectors, which could see trash piling up in the French streets.
A group of student unions also called for action March 7 by those not yet in the pension system and a “day of action and mobilization” March 9.
Elaine Ganley and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed.
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