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French unions unfazed by low protest turnout, all hopes on March 7

Debate on pension reform enters its final session before MPs

Strike action is not now expected before next month after fifth day of action yesterday Pic: Franck Legros / Shutterstock

The fifth day of nationwide action (yesterday February 16) saw fewer people protesting but union leaders, who unusually put more emphasis on action in medium-sized towns rather than Paris, say turnout numbers were not so important.

They instead aimed to continue momentum as they prepare for renewed action on March 7, a day where unions threaten ‘to bring France to a standstill’ against the reform.

Only 440,000 demonstrators were on the streets yesterday, according to the Interior Ministry. The French union CGT claims the turnout was nearer 1.3 million.

Both figures are the lowest given by respective sides since protests against the pension reform bill began on January 19.

Opposition to the bill mainly focuses on article seven of the law, which proposes raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64.

Today is the last day of debate on the bill in the National Assembly before it leaves to pass before senators. Article seven is yet to be discussed. 

Low turnout, low strikes

Yesterday’s low turnout on the streets was also matched by reduced strike action across all sectors.

Just 14% of SNCF workers joined the strike – half as many as took action on February 7, the last national ‘strike’ day.

In the education sector, less than 8% of teachers were on strike; however, this is in part due to school Zones A and B currently being on holiday.

The focus of attention for action was not on Paris, as is usual, but Albi (Tarn) in southern France, where Philippe Martinez and Laurent Berger, the leaders of the CGT and CFDT unions, led the march.

The town was chosen due to its links with the French socialist Jean Jaurès but also to show that anger over the reform is felt across France and not just in major cities.

Medium-sized towns and cities have seen strong demonstrations across all days of action, which is rare in France, where protests are usually centred in urban areas.

Momentum the motivator, numbers ‘do not matter’

Unlike for other weekday protests, unions did not call for section wide strikes, but instead “a day of mobilisation,” said Patricia Drevon, secretary of the FO union. Yesterday was “not a measure of the movement,” she added.

“The idea is to maintain the mobilisation," said Mr Martinez.

“It is the school holidays… there is no objective of figures [today],” added Mr Berger.

Union leaders were also aware of strike fatigue, knowing that so many days of action in a short time can impact workers.

“We have people telling us: 'The fourth or fifth day of the strike, it's complicated, I'll take a break and start again on March 7’” said Cyril Chabanier, president of the CFTC, another of France’s eight major unions.

Plan for intensified strikes from March 7

Yesterday’s action is expected to be the final day before March 7 with unions not calling for action in the meantime.

March 7, however, looks set to be the start of intensified strikes, after a break of almost a month, seeing protestors hit the streets with renewed vigour.

Exact details are not yet known but strikes are expected to hit all sectors, and may turn into a general strike, or see public sectors start ‘renewable strikes’, which have no defined end date.

RATP and refuse workers have already announced renewable strikes from March 7 and youth organisations have called for a day of mobilisation in schools and universities for March 9.

Between these days is International Women’s Day (March 8), when strike action is also set to be announced.

Support is expected to be high with nearly 60% of people who took part in a recent poll saying they support the idea of increasing action on March 7.

Read more: France braces for standstill on March 7 over pension reform protests

The government is still confident the bill will be passed after making further concessions this week over the retirement age of those who enter the workforce younger.

Ministers say the reforms will have an immediate impact on retirees.

Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt said that two million pensions will be re-evaluated in the first year after the law passes, with almost all of them seeing an increase to their pensions. 

Out of the 800,000 people who retire each year, "200,000 will have a better pension with the reform than without it," he added.

Related articles: 

Thousands in France given free electricity by protesting workers

Age, new minimum amount: What does France’s pension reform involve?

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