(CN) — French workers on Tuesday hit the streets in massive demonstrations against French President Emmanuel Macron's deeply unpopular plans to raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64.
For the first time in over a decade, all eight of France's major trade unions have agreed to back nationwide strikes against the pension reforms making their way through parliament. France's Home Office estimated nearly 1.3 million people took to the streets, exceeding the 1.2 million people who marched on Jan. 31. Unions put the number of demonstrators at about 3.5 million. Protests took place in up to 300 cities and towns across France. It was the sixth day of national strikes since the start of the year.
Tuesday was the first of potentially several more days of strikes over the pension plans, which are a centerpiece to Macron's second term in the Elysee.
Since taking office in 2017, Macron's presidency has been marked by massive protests and he was forced to scrap pension reforms in 2020 due to public outcry. This time, though, Macron is expected to push through reforms even if that means using a controversial constitutional device allowing him to bypass parliament.
Union leaders have vowed to bring the country to a “standstill” unless the government backs down and scraps its plans.
Last week, Emmanuel Lepine, a union leader with the the far-left General Confederation of Labor, said the protesters were prepared to “bring the French economy to its knees.”
On Monday, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told TV channel France 5 that such language about bringing “the economy to its knees” went much too far.
Tuesday brought major disruptions as oil workers blocked refineries and truck drivers blocked highways. The strikes caused major headaches for travelers as rail, bus, subway and airline workers joined the protests along with large numbers of teachers and other public workers. In Paris, rubbish piled up as trash collectors went on strike.
Workers in the private sector, meanwhile, mostly did not participate. The government urged people to work from home if possible.
There were reports of protester clashes with police in Paris, Lyon and elsewhere, though the vast majority of the protests were peaceful, according to French media reports.
Polls show more than two-thirds of French citizens oppose raising the age of retirement. They see their generous pension system as a hard-won right of a civilized welfare state and efforts to weaken it as potentially leading to other social benefits coming under attack.
France's convoluted pension system has been tinkered with by previous governments and the age of retirement has already been raised from 60 to 62, after former Socialist French President Francois Mitterrand lowered the age of retirement from 65 to 60 in 1982.
Macron's government argues that raising the retirement age is fundamental in order to keep the nation's budget solvent, get France in line with other European Union countries and adjust to the modern reality that life expectancy has increased. The retirement age is higher in other major EU countries.
But there is vigorous debate in France over the necessity of raising pension age and how to pay for future budget shortfalls. Unions argue that employers should be made to pay higher taxes, but France already has among the highest tax rates in the EU.
Since losing a majority in the National Assembly last June, Macron's party has been forced to rely on the center-right Republicans to get the proposed legislation through parliament. In the past, France's Republicans have backed overhauling the pension system and they mostly are supporting Macron's reforms.
Still, there is a chance that defections from Macron's own Renaissance party and dissenters among the ranks of Republicans may force the president to use a controversial constitutional device to bypass parliament. His plans are opposed by the far left and far right in parliament.
“[Macron] cannot really go back at this point because it really is one of his main reforms even though it is not really a main reform that needs to be done,” said Remi Bourgeot, an associate fellow at the French Institute of International and Strategic Affairs, during a recent discussion on Al Jazeera television. “It was a centerpiece in his manifesto. He is certainly willing to do it by force.”
Along with raising the age of retirement to 64, the government hopes to raise the minimum number of years a person must work to qualify for a full pension to 43 years. The government says the changes will bring in 17.7 billion euros ($18.7 billion) in revenue by 2030. The reforms would not affect certain state workers, such as police and firefighters.
Parliament has until March 26 to pass a final bill.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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