Workers’ unions have called for more, tougher, and longer pension strikes in France, as the third day of action goes ahead today (Tuesday, February 7), and MPs clash in debates on the issue.
Unions say that they must keep the pressure on the government, which has (mainly) so far stood firm in its position. Proposed changes to the pension scheme include controversially raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64.
Speaking at the protest, head of the CGT, one of France’s main unions, Philippe Martinez called for “tougher, more, and more massive” strikes, while Laurent Berger, general secretary of the CFDT, said: “We will try to be even stronger this Saturday [when more protests are planned).”
Mr Martinez said: “The government cannot remain deaf to the immense majority of workers [who oppose reforms]. It continues to be stubborn despite protests, so yes, we must go up a gear with more marked, longer, tougher, more numerous, more massive and extended strikes.”
He added that the government was trying to “make people afraid”. He said that President Macron had an “overinflated ego” and was “playing with fire”. “You can’t get elected and then just do whatever you want,” he said.
Early estimates by the CGT from today's demonstrations say that there were 400,000 protestors in Paris - less than the 500,000 at the protest last week (January 31) and equal to those present on the first day of protests (January 19).
Over 180,000 students protested nationwide, according to the national student union in France, an increase from the 150,000 who took action last week.
Read more: French pension strike February 7: travel and schools to be impacted
Read more: Why more people are supporting the retirement strikes in France
Virginie Gonzales, general secretary of the UGICT-CGT told BFMTV: “I fear that without blocking the economy, we will not be heard; or at least, not listened to.”
Ecologist MP Sandrine Rousseau added: "I'm very angry that the government is asking people who are already doing a lot of work to take longer to get to retirement. Their bodies are in pain, they are exposed to psycho-social risks, burnouts, and a loss of meaning.
“Retirement is the reward for this work. I would say that a ‘right to laziness’ from the age of 60 is legitimate, and even before, perhaps.”
She added that the reforms would also “worsen” women’s position at work.
Unions are joining those taking to the streets today in a new protest, including in most major towns and cities across the country. These include large protests in Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse, Nice, Marseille, Arras, and Châteauroux.
Mr Martinez said that there was a “high level” of turnout for the Paris movement, despite Zone A being on school holidays (Zone A includes Besançon, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Dijon, Grenoble, Limoges, Lyon and Poitiers).
In addition to the CGT and CFDT, management at electricity firm EDF said that almost a third (30.3%) of workers were on strike. This compares to 40.3% on the previous day of action, January 31.
SNCF has said that 25% of its staff are on strike, compared to 36% on January 31, and 46% on January 19. SUD-Rail said that 35% of the workforce was striking, alongside 50% of its drivers.
Unions have also said that between 75-100% of staff at TotalEnergies are on strike, although its management puts the number at 56%. It said that 7% of staff at its fuel refineries had walked out, and that deliveries had been paused.
However, it did seek to reassure drivers that this would not cause shortages at petrol stations as the current levels are still high enough.
MP debates: Assemblée president calls for calm
It comes after debates on the pension reform proposals began this week in the Assemblée Nationale. Its president, Yaël Braun-Pivet, called for calm, and said “enough is enough” after several incidents involving malicious messages received by MPs.
Graffiti was also tagged on a statue and the gates of the Palais Bourbon.
Ms Braun-Pivet said: “As president of the Assemblée Nationale, I want calm and serenity to be present at each moment, so that each MP can be free to take whatever position they want to take in the chamber, throughout the debates.”
She said that the Assemblée would “not tolerate” pressure and excess conflict or “agitation”.
Opposition leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said: "We were elected on a position concerning pensions, it is our duty to defend it. We are fighting. We will never leave them alone, not at night, not during the day, not on Saturdays, not on Sundays.”
Mr Mélenchon said that President Macron “needs to be reasonable…because he is the one who is creating all of this conflict. He is trying to start his five-year term with a show of force, to show that he’s the boss.
“We have entered into a moment of great tension. Many things will play out this week because we will have massive action from the population in the streets,” he said.
The government has continued to defend the reforms despite the opposition.
Work Minister Olivier Dussopt said that the proposals were “necessary because the system is running at a deficit”. He said: “Today we have around 1.5 taxpayers per retired person. But 30 years ago, we had 3 per person. It shows that we have to do something.”
However, Mr Dussopt admitted that the protests had been “significant”, and that “we must always look at what’s happening in protests”. “We can’t be in denial,” he said.
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