France braces for standstill on March 7 over pension reform protests

Fifth day of national strike action this Thursday, as between 963,000 and 2.5 million attended nationwide Saturday protests

Hundreds of thousands of people in Paris joined Saturday’s demonstrations
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Unions say they will bring France a halt in early March, as tension between the government and unions over the pension reform bill shows no signs of letting up.

All eight major French unions have called for further action against the bill, after weekend protests on Saturday February 11 saw 963,000 people attend, according to the Interior Ministry. The unions say the figure was closer to 2.5 million.

These figures are not as high as for protests on January 31, but are an increase on figures from the third day of national action on Tuesday February 7.

Protests are over the pension reform bill, most notably the increase in the minimum pension age from 62 to 64.

Call for fifth day of action

Even before Saturday’s protests, unions had announced a fifth day of strike action on Thursday February 16.

It is expected that journeys via train and air will be affected, as on previous days but more exact details are not expected until Wednesday.

The SNCF has confirmed there will be disruptions to rail services as their workers will be joining in strike action.

Last Saturday's action was labelled as a day of protests and not strikes, but air traffic controllers at Orly announced a surprise strike on Saturday morning, causing around 50% of flights in the afternoon to be cancelled. Other airports in Paris were unaffected.

Read more: Unions call for tougher, longer pension strikes in France

March 7 set as a ‘landmark day’

The unions have also threatened a ‘strengthening’ of action if the reform in its current state is not retracted, where the pension age increase is non-negotiable.

“If the government doesn’t abandon the text, the movement [against the reform] will increase”, said Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the CGT, one of France’s main unions.

Another union leader, Laurent Berger, general secretary of the CFDT, claims that March 7 will be a “landmark day” during this current wave of action.

All eight major unions have agreed on this date but no precise action has been officially confirmed yet.

The union call is to “bring the country to a standstill” but they say this may not necessarily include a call for a general strike, nor for ongoing public sector strikes from this date, without giving further details.

The strike will be a “24-hour strike but not necessarily more”, said Mr Berger.

“The question of [ongoing strikes] is not decided at the trade union level, but at individual company level,” confirms Mr Martinez.

In Paris, however, the RATP has announced a renewable strike from March 7, which has been backed by the CGT as well as other unions.

‘The ball is in the government’s court’

All of this proposed action is dependent, however, on whether the bill continues to be discussed in parliament.

The union leaders say there is plenty of time before the scheduled date to negotiate, after which they can cancel action on this date.

“The ball is in the government’s court,” said Mr Martinez.

The key issue preventing negotiations is the increase in retirement age, as the government is unwilling to budge on this issue.

There is no indication of a possibility to discuss this position, according to Mr Berger, who accuses them of blocking dialogue..

Government says it is willing to enter dialogue

Ministers defended the reforms over the weekend and confirmed no further changes to the bill since last week’s proposed amendments.

Proposed changes involved keeping or lowering current retirement ages for those who start working at an early age, made in an effort to gain the support of MPs from other parties in parliament to pass the bill.

The government, in turn, is aware of the potential effects of a general (or widespread) strike on March 7.

“We cannot be deaf” to the protests, said Aurore Bergé, leader of President Macron’s Renaissance party in parliament, and said they are willing to discuss the reforms with union leaders.

She also confirmed her confidence that the bill will pass, in an interview with BFMTV on Sunday after the protests.

“I believe the reform [as it is] will be adopted”, she said.

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