Hundreds of thousands of strikers were expected to march in street demonstrations across France on Thursday as transport, schools and refineries were hit by major industrial action against Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular plans to raise the retirement age by two years to 64.
Marches began early in regional cities including Nantes and Nice, as riot police took position in central Paris ahead of a demonstration scheduled for the afternoon. Shopkeepers around the Place de la République boarded up windows and shopfronts after the authorities warned of a possibility of vandalism on the edge of the marches or black bloc-style tactics.
Local and regional train services across France ground to almost a standstill, public transport in cities such as Paris was “very disrupted” according to transport operators, and a large proportion of high-speed train lines across the country were not running.
The main teachers’ union said 70% of primary school teachers were on strike, with many schools closing for the day. Public service radio and television were also disrupted, playing music or showing reruns; many theatres were closed. Some refinery shipments were blocked and energy output lowered.
The 24-hour strike and demonstrations in 200 towns and cities are the first major test for Macron since his re-election against his far-right rival Marine Le Pen last spring.
Macron has made the pensions issue a marker of his aim to transform France and overhaul its social model and welfare system. He insists he will deliver his key election pledge to overhaul the French pension system – raising the retirement age for most people to 64 from 62 and increasing the years of contributions required for a full pension. Opinion polls have shown that the majority of French people oppose these proposals and view them as “unjust”, even if many agree with a need for change.
The key question for Macron and the government is whether trade unions, who have joined together in a rare and historic united front for this Thursday’s 24-hour strike, will harness public anger into a broader social protest movement and vote to continue industrial action on Thursday night. Some high-school students blockaded lycées on Thursday morning, as the government fears young people in schools and universities could lead their own protests.
Macron remains conscious of the legacy of the gilets jaunes anti-government protest movement which erupted in 2018 from the ground up, without trade union leadership, taking the government by surprise. It is uncertain whether the anger at pension change and the cost of living could swell the current protests. In 2019, a previous attempt at pension change by Macron was met with the longest-running rail strikes in France since May 1968, and those plans for a pensions overhaul were put aside during the Covid pandemic.
Éric Woerth, a former minister under the right’s Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now part of Macron’s party, told Le Monde that politicians shouldn’t “underestimate” the current mood on pensions changes, saying “the confrontation will play out on the streets”.
Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-left CGT union, told the broadcaster Public Senat that the planned pension change “bundles together everyone’s dissatisfaction” with the government. He said the rare united front among workers’ representatives showed “the problem is very serious”. He added: “This will be a big day of mobilisation, especially with all the unions on the same page”. He called the pension changes “unjust”, “dogmatic and ideological”.
Laurent Berger, the head of France’s largest union, the moderate CFDT, told BFMTV: “There is a lot of anger.”
The pension changes still need to go through parliament, where Macron’s centrist grouping has lost its absolute majority. The government is hoping to pass the bill swiftly with the support of lawmakers from the right’s Les Républicains.
The government insists that it wants to keep public spending in check. “This reform is necessary and fair,” the labour minister, Olivier Dussopt, told LCI TV on Thursday, after unions criticised Macron for being away in Barcelona for a Franco-Spanish summit. Dussopt said the right to strike was a protected in France but he didn’t want the country “blocked”.
The labour ministry estimates that pushing back the retirement age by two years and extending the paying-in period would bring an additional €17.7bn in pension contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027.
Unions say ordinary workers would be hit and the changes were unfair.