French pension reform strikes halt trains, shut schools

Most trains have come to a halt, oil refineries have been blocked and power production reduced in France as unions organise a sixth day of nationwide strikes against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform plans.

Opinion polls have for weeks shown a majority of voters reject the reform, which would raise the pension age by two years to 64 among other measures, but the government intends to stand its ground and carry out the plans it says are 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.

Unions said they would increase pressure to try and convince lawmakers not to vote for the reforms, adding that rolling strikes, particularly at oil refineries and on the railways, could be prolonged for several days.

Eric Sellini, a CGT union representative at TotalEnergies, told Reuters a strike currently completely blocking the Gonfreville refinery in Normandy was slated to run until Thursday and at the Donges refinery in western France until Friday.

“We’re not giving up. Today we’re going to put more than two million people on the street, I am convinced of it,” the head of FO union Frederic Souillot told RTL radio.

“We will continue until the reform is withdrawn.”

Rallies are planned across France after more than 1.27 million people took part in previous protests on January 31.

“Together … let’s bring France to a halt,” the country’s main unions said in a joint statement.

On Tuesday 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.

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.

“I’m telling Emmanuel Macron to hang in there,” LR senator Bruno Retailleau said on Sunday.

“If he gives in, he won’t be able to carry out more reforms. It would be the end of his (second) term.”

Still, it is unclear whether the changes will be approved by parliament by the end of the month or if the government will have to ram them through using special constitutional powers.

Transport Minister Clement Beaune said Tuesday’s strike would be “one of the most difficult ones” for travellers.

“For many, it will be a real hassle”, he said.

“We are moving up a 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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