France faces massive strikes over pension reform

French trade unions are heading for what is expected to be a decisive showdown with President Emmanuel Macron over pension reform, with massive strikes from Tuesday aiming to bring the country "to a standstill".

French strike
People take part in a demonstration in Paris on February 16th, 2023 as part of a fifth day of nationwide strikes and rallies against French president's pensions reform whose headline measure is raising the legal retirement age from 62 to 64. Photo by: Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

After five separate days of protests so far this year, this week’s stoppages herald a new phase in the battle between the centrist government and opponents of the changes, which includes an overwhelming majority of French voters.

“We always said that we would go into a higher gear if necessary,” the head of the influential hard-left CGT union, Philippe Martinez, told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Sunday. “It will be the case on Tuesday.”

More than 260 demonstrations are expected nationwide, many in small and medium-sized towns where opposition to the reform is strong, while strikes will affect transport, the energy sector and public services.

Police are expecting between 1.1-1.4 million people to hit the streets, a source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The upper limit of that range would represent the biggest day of protests in decades, higher than the 1.27 million who took part in demonstrations on January 31st, and bigger than previous pension reform protests in 2010.

Unions representing workers on the national SNCF railways, the Paris metro and the energy sector, including refineries, have called for rolling strikes for the first time, with other industries expected to join in.

All eight major French trade unions have called for the stoppages to bring the country “to a standstill” on Tuesday, with shopkeepers also encouraged to down shutters.

“The 7th (Tuesday) is going to be very difficult,” Transport Minister Clement Beaune admitted on Friday, calling on workers to stay home where possible.

Unfair reform?

Macron’s plan to raise the official age of retirement from 62 to 64 is a flagship policy of his second term in office, which began last year after he defeated far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

He has called the change “essential” because of deficits forecast for the system for most of the next 25 years, according to analysis by the independent pensions ombudsman.

France also lags behind its neighbours and other major European economies where the retirement age has already been hiked to 65 or above to reflect higher life expectancy.

But opponents see the changes as unfair, penalising low-skilled workers who start their careers early, while reducing the right to leisure and a long retirement at the end of working life.

Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt insisted in an interview on Saturday that 1.8 million low-income retirees would see their pensions increase by up to 100 euros a month from September if the reform is enacted.

“That won’t make them rich, but it’s a substantial effort that has never been carried out despite announcements over the last 20 years,” he said.


Time is running out for the unions and other opponents of the reform to force the government into a U-turn.

The legislation has already been discussed in the lower house National Assembly, and is currently being debated in the upper-house Senate, where it is expected to be amended but approved.

A final vote from both chambers is expected from the middle of March and by March 26th at the latest.

Macron has faced numerous challenges from the unions in the past and, almost without exception, has succeeded in pushing through his pro-business agenda and social security reforms.

The former investment banker, often accused of being aloof and out of touch, has tasked Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne with being the face of the pension reform and leading negotiations with opposition parties and labour leaders.

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French left in last-ditch bid to derail pensions overhaul

France's left-wing forces and labour unions will stage another day of strikes on Tuesday to try to derail President Emmanuel Macron's pensions overhaul, insisting that the fight to thwart the changes is not over even after it became law.

French left in last-ditch bid to derail pensions overhaul

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to take to the streets across France for what will be the fourteenth day of  demonstrations since January to oppose the reform.

Macron signed in April the bill to raise the pension age to 64 from 62 after the government used a controversial but legal mechanism to avoid a vote in parliament that it risked losing.

The later retirement age, which seeks to bolster France’s troubled long-term finances, was a banner pledge of Macron’s second and final term in office, and its smooth implementation is seen by supporters as crucial to his legacy.

Parts of the overhaul, including the key increase in the pension age, were printed on Sunday in France’s official journal, meaning they are now law.

READ MORE: Protests and flight cancellations: What to expect from Tuesday’s French pension strike

Opponents are pinning their hopes on a motion put forward by the small Liot faction in parliament — broadly backed by the left — to repeal the law and the increased retirement age.

Parliament speaker Yael Braun-Pivet, a member of Macron’s party but officially neutral, was to rule on Thursday whether parliament could vote on returning the retirement age to 62.

This was removed from the Liot motion at commission level, but left-wing parties have sought to put it back on the agenda via an amendment.

‘Increase in anger and violence’

In an op-ed for the Le Monde daily on Monday, the key figures from all of France’s left-wing parties urged Braun-Pivet to allow a vote on the motion, at the risk of further unrest.

“For our fellow citizens, a new denial of democracy will only lead to increased disaffection for our institutions, which is already manifesting itself in the form of growing abstentionism, and even an increase in anger and violence,” they said.

Authorities expect up to 600,000 people at the demonstrations nationwide on Tuesday, less than half the peak on March 7th, when 1.28 million were counted by police.

In contrast to the earlier phase of the movement, only limited disruption is expected on public transport though some flight cancellations are awaited, in particular at the Paris Orly airport.

READ MORE: Which French airports will be hit by cancellations during Tuesday’s strike?

“The defeat has not been enacted,” Greens MP Sandrine Rousseau told Radio J, warning that “we will raise our voices” if the parliament vote is not allowed.

The battle against the pensions reform “will never finish”, hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told the 20 Minutes daily.

But Macron’s allies say it has long been game over for opponents of the reform, even if it remains widely unpopular with the public.

The opposition “knows very well that this motion has no future,” Prisca Thevenot, an MP for Macron’s Renaissance party, told LCI television on Sunday.

The government says the changes are essential for France’s financial health.

In April, Fitch, one of the leading credit ratings agencies, lowered its rating on France’s debt, which is approaching €3 trillion.

But France managed to avoid a new credit downgrade on Friday, when S&P Global maintained the agency’s “AA” rating.