Strikes spread as French unions intensify pension reform fight
Looking to pile pressure on lawmakers not to raise the pension age by two years to 64, France's more hardline unions said there would be rolling strikes this time, which could go on for days, including at oil refineries and on the railways. "We will continue until the reform is withdrawn," the head of Force Ouvriere union, Frédéric Souillot, told RTL radio.
French truck drivers and garbage collectors joined nationwide strikes against President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform plans on Tuesday as trade unions stepped up their campaign to force a policy U-turn. On the sixth day of industrial action since mid-January, there was also widespread disruption to commuter and high-speed train services, fuel deliveries were halted and numerous schools shut.
This is a critical time for the government, which is hoping the reform will be adopted by parliament later this month. Looking to pile pressure on lawmakers not to raise the pension age by two years to 64, France's more hardline unions said there would be rolling strikes this time, which could go on for days, including at oil refineries and on the railways.
"We will continue until the reform is withdrawn," the head of Force Ouvriere union, Frédéric Souillot, told RTL radio. Macron's proposal to make people work longer is deeply unpopular amongst the wider public, opinion polls show. Street protests are expected to take place in more than 300 towns and cities.
There were reports of students blocking schools while BFM TV showed footage of workers abandoning cars on the side of the road near Amiens in northern France as others blocked access to an industrial zone. "This reform is unfair," said Aurelie Herkous, who works in public finance in the Normandy town of Pont Audemer. "Macron offers tax gifts to companies ... he's got to stop coming down on the same people time after time."
ROLLING STRIKES? France's leading trade unions have so far acted with rare unity, but the coming days and weeks will be a test of their ability to maintain that united front.
The CFDT, now France's biggest trade union and generally reform-minded, has not committed to the rolling strikes sought by the hardleft CGT, Force Ouvriere (FO) and others. "The CFDT will propose other types of social mobilisation," Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, said in a radio interview on Monday.
While the government will be looking for divisions to emerge between the unions in the hope it weakens the movement, the CGT and FO, which are powerful within the transport and energy sectors, would still be able to bring significant disruption even without the CFDT participation. The government insists its reform plan is essential to ensure the pension system does not go bust.
"I can understand that not many people want to work two more years, but it's necessary to ensure the viability of the system," Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told France 5 TV. While Macron's camp does not have an absolute majority in parliament, it can count on the support of at least part of the conservative Les Republicains party.
"I'm telling Emmanuel Macron to hang in there," LR senator Bruno Retailleau said. "If he gives in, he won't be able to carry out more reforms, it would be the end of his (second) term." Even so, the legislation is having a bumpy path through parliament and Macron and his government may yet be forced to use special constitutional powers to bypass a parliamentary vote.
"We are going into a higher gear," the head of CGT union, Philippe Martinez, told weekly JDD. "The ball is now in president (Macron)'s court. It is up to him to withdraw this reform."
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