By Clotaire Achi and Stephane Mahe
PARIS (Reuters) -France’s nationwide strike against a planned pension reform, which disrupted train services, shut schools and halted fuel deliveries, will spill into Thursday and Friday as unions seek to force a government retreat on the deeply unpopular policy.
Around 1.28 million people took to the streets on Tuesday in demonstrations across the country, the interior ministry said, making turnout for the protest day – the sixth against the reform this year – the highest so far.
This is a critical time for labour and the government since French President Emmanuel Macron hopes parliament will adopt his plan to raise the pension age by two years to 64 before April.
Looking to pile pressure on lawmakers, France’s hardline unions said there would be rolling strikes going forward that could go on for days, at least in some sectors including at TotalEnergies’ oil refineries.
“The real fight starts now,” said Marin Guillotin, FO union representative at the Donges refinery in western France.
“We haven’t been heard or listened to. We are using the only means we have left: It’s the hard strike … we are not going to give up.”
Trains experienced disruptions again on Wednesday, as did the Paris metro system, though slightly less than on Tuesday, the SNCF and RATP transportation companies said.
The government said 10,000 more protesters turned out nationwide on Tuesday than the previous peak of 1.27 million on Jan. 31, and bigger crowds were reported by media and local officials at rallies in some cities, including Marseille.
The strike also drew in more industrial sectors, extending to truck drivers and garbage collectors. Local media quoted the CGT union as saying 700,000 marched in Paris. Police put the number at 81,000.
Another round of protests will take place on Saturday, France’s union leaders announced on Tuesday evening as they again urged Macron to drop the reform, saying the president’s rigid stance could lead to an “explosive” situation.
Macron’s proposal to make people work longer before they are eligible for pensions is deeply unpopular, opinion polls show.
“This reform is unfair,” said Aurelie Herkous, who works in public finance in the Normandy town of Pont Audemer. “Macron offers tax gifts to companies … he’s got to stop coming down on the same people time after time.”
France’s leading trade unions have so far acted with rare unity, but the coming weeks will test that.
The CFDT, France’s biggest trade union and generally reform-minded, has not committed to the rolling strikes and has said there could be other forms of protest.
While the government will be looking for divisions among the unions, the CGT and FO, which are powerful within the transport and energy sectors, would still be able to bring significant disruption even without CFDT participation.
The government insists its reform plan is essential to ensure the pension system does not run out of money.
“I can understand that not many people want to work two more years, but it’s necessary to ensure the viability of the system,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told France 5 TV.
Macron’s centrist alliance does not have an absolute majority in parliament, and his government may use special constitutional powers to enact the legislation by bypassing the lower house – something union leaders have warned him not to do.
“Forcing (the bill) through would spark a crisis,” CGT leader Philippe Martinez said.
The Senate was likely to adopt overnight the bill’s Article 7, that pushes retirement age to 64.
(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, Forrest Crellin, Benjamin Mallet, Ingrid Melander, Elizabeth Pineau, Alain Acco, Blandine Henault, Marc Leras, Yonathan Van der Voort, Layli Foroudi, Tassilo Hummel, Geert de Clercq, Richard Lough; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Christina Fincher, Aurora Ellis and Cynthia Osterman)
Police officers stand behind a fire as protestors demonstrate against French government’s pension reform plan in Lyon, France, March 7, 2023 in this screengrab obtained from a social media video. Twitter @Bismuthback/via REUTERS