Trade unions launched a third wave of nationwide strikes on Tuesday against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to make the French work longer before retirement, as the legislation started its bumpy passage through parliament.
Rail services were cancelled, schools disrupted and refinery deliveries halted as workers across multiple sectors walked out, and unions urged the public again to take to the streets in big numbers.
The government says people must work two years longer – meaning for most until the age of 64 – in order to keep the budget of one of the industrial world’s most generous pension systems in the black.
The French spend the largest number of years in retirement among OECD countries – a deeply cherished benefit that a substantial majority are reluctant to give up, polls show.
Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt dismissed opposition accusations that the government was in denial over the scale of street protests across the country last month, and said change was needed.
“The pension system is loss-making and if we care about the system, we must save it,” the minister told RMC radio.
Philippe Martinez, leader of the hardleft CGT trade union, said Macron was playing “a dangerous game” in pressing ahead with a deeply unpopular reform at a time households are facing high inflation.
TotalEnergies (TTEF.PA) said deliveries of refined oil products from its sites had been suspended due to the strike. Electricity production was down just 3.7 gigawatts (GW) and data from grid operator RTE showed minimal imports in the energy mix.
The government says the reform will allow gross savings of over 17 billion euros ($18 billion) per year by 2030.
Unions and leftwing opponents say the money can be found elsewhere, notably from the wealthy. Conservative opponents, whose support Macron needs for a working majority in the National Assembly, want concessions for those who start working young.
More than a million people marched in cities across France during the first two days of strike action in January, as public pressure intensified against a government that insists it will stand its ground on the reforms main planks.
In parliament, more than 20,000 amendments lie before lawmakers, the vast majority from the leftwing Nupes alliance. However, because the reform has been tacked onto an annual social security bill, the government may send it to the Senate after just two weeks.
In a concession to conservatives, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has offered to let some people who start work early also retire early – but Les Republicains (LR) lawmakers are divided over whether the proposed starting age of 20-21 is low enough.
“Someone who starts work earlier, stops working earlier. What’s so difficult to understand @Elisabeth_Borne,” Aurelien Pradie, a lead LR critic of the current proposal, tweeted.