An estimated 1.27 million people took to the streets of French cities, towns and villages Tuesday, according to the Interior Ministry, in new massive protests against the government’s key pension reform plans.
The turnout exceeded participation in a previous round of strikes and protests against the proposed retirement age increase, in a significant victory for labour unions.
The eight unions organizing the protests promptly announced that they would organize new demonstrations on Feb. 7 and Feb. 11.
“In the face of massive rejection, the government must withdraw its reform,” said Patricia Drevon of the Workers’ Force union. She stood beside colleagues from the other unions in a rare show of solidarity.
The powerful CGT union claimed that 2.8 million protesters marched Tuesday.
The nationwide strikes and protests were a crucial test both for President Emmanuel Macron and his opponents. The government says it is determined to push through Macron’s election pledge to reform France’s pension system. And strong popular resentment will strengthen efforts by labour unions and left-wing legislators to block the bill, which would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.
In the capital, police said 87,000 people took to the streets – up from 80,000 in the first big pension protest on Jan. 19, when authorities said 1 million people demonstrated nationwide. Union estimates had doubled that figure.
The overall peaceful Paris march was marred by scattered clashes between a small group of black-clad radicals and riot police, who fired tear gas at Les Invalides, site of Napoleon’s tomb towards the end of the march that stretched across the city. Police reported 30 arrests.
Some 11,000 police were on duty for an estimated 250 protests nationwide.
“Today, the government is in a corner. It has only to withdraw its reform,” Erik Meyer of the Sud Rail union – one of eight which organized the march – said on BFM TV.
Veteran left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon celebrated “a historic day” of protests and predicted defeat for Macron.
“It’s not often that we see such a mass mobilization,” he said, speaking in the southern city of Marseille. “It’s a form of citizens’ insurrection.”
On the other hand, Macron on Monday defended the reform as “essential.” His prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, insisted this past weekend that raising the retirement age to 64 is “no longer negotiable.”
The protests were not limited to France’s big cities. On Ouessant, a tiny western isle of some 800 people off the tip of Brittany, about 100 demonstrators gathered outside the office of Mayor Denis Palluel and marched, he said.
Palluel told The Associated Press that the prospect of having to work longer alarmed mariners on the island with arduous ocean-going jobs.
“Retiring at a reasonable age is important, because life expectancy isn’t very long,” he said.
In addition to the protests, strikes disrupted services across France Tuesday.
Rail operator SNCF said most train services were knocked out in the Paris region, in all other regions and on France’s flagship high-speed network linking cities and major towns. The Paris Metro was also hard hit by station closures and cancellations.
Power workers also demonstrated their support for the strikes by temporarily reducing electricity supplies, without causing blackouts, power producer EDF said.
Jamila Sariac, 60, a civil servant, said the pension system should be left alone.
“Social protection is a milestone of our society, a milestone that the government wants to break,” she said, adding that strikes would more effectively pressure the government than demonstrations. “We owe it to our elders who contributed to the wealth of France.”
Construction worker Said Belaiba was among travellers whose morning train from Paris to the city of Lyon was cancelled, forcing him to wait. Still, the 62-year-old said he opposed the planned reform.
“My job is physically exhausting,” he said. “You can’t keep on over 64.”
Strikes also hit schools, with the Education Ministry reporting that around one quarter of teachers stayed off the job – fewer than in the first round of protests.
French media also reported walkouts in oil refineries. Radio station France Inter played music instead of its usual morning talk shows and apologized to its listeners because employees were striking.