France’s second national day of protests over pension reform plans saw record numbers on the streets yesterday (January 31) - 2.8 million according to the unions, 1.27 million according to the Interior Ministry.
Either way both figures are higher than the first day of recent strike action on January 19. These figures often vary due to different ways of counting the people present.
Unions have now called for two more days of protests – on Tuesday February 7 and Saturday February 11.
The French government, however, is so far standing firm, maintaining that key aspects of the pension reform, such as the retirement age must increase from 62 to 64, must be maintained.
Increased turnout but fewer on strike
Using Interior Ministry figures, yesterday was the highest national turnout for a protest since 1995, and higher than the 1.23 million who demonstrated against Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reforms in October 2010.
The number of workers on strike in several key sectors, however, decreased.
Only 36.5% of SNCF workers were on strike compared to 46.3% on January 19.
This was the same for energy company EDF; 40.3% of workers were on strike, less than the 44.5% on strike on the first day of protests.
Over three-quarters of trains outside of the Paris region were cancelled however despite the increased number of workers.
The reason for the decrease in the number of strikers is said to be due to the fact that many areas of the public sector have already announced further days of mobilisation and protests, either in alignment with the expected upcoming major strike dates, or in separate actions in their sector.
Workers who strike lose pay, so must be strategic about when they choose to strike, with more strike days expected to be announced both nationally and for individual sectors.
The Snuipp-FSU, a teachers union, say that some workers missed out on action yesterday in order to be able to mobilise for the next set of strikes.
A poll last week by the Institut Elabe* found that over 70% of French people were against the pension reform.
Major unions call for new strike dates in February
The call for further strike action in February has been backed by all the major unions, including the CFDT, CGT, FO, and CFTC.
The proposed dates for the action - February 7 and 11 - coincides with action already confirmed in certain key sectors.
This includes a strike by the refinery workers (a 72-hour strike starting on February 6), and a joint CGT-Cheminots and SUD-Rail proposal for rail strikes across February 7 and 8.
The rail strikes, which already risk affecting Zone A school holidays, may continue into mid-February, with the unions calling for a “renewable” strike after these dates.
The protest proposed for Saturday February 11 will allow for more people, who are unable to join weekday actions, to join the protests, Catherine Perret, confederate secretary of the CGT, said.
Government stands firm
The protests, however, have not affected the stance of the government on the controversial pension reforms.
On Wednesday morning, Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt confirmed that the government still plans to go ahead with the bill.
Key points of the bill, such as raising the pension age from 62 to 64, will not be changed.
“If we don't (increase the age of retirement) to 64, we won't balance the system” said Dussopt on France 2.
Debate on the reform bill is set to begin in the French parliament next week.
*A sample of 1,000 French people aged 18 or over, carried out over the internet on January 24 and 25, 2023