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Strikes, protests hit France in round 2 of pension battle

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January 31, 2023
By The Associated Press

By Jade Le Deley And John Leicester

From tiny islands to major cities, demonstrators poured by the thousands into France’s streets Tuesday in the latest clash of wills with the government over its plans to push back the retirement age. Labor unions aimed to mobilize more than 1 million protesters in what one veteran left-wing leader described as a “citizens’ insurrection.”

The nationwide strikes and protests are a crucial test both for President Emmanuel Macron’s government and its opponents. The government says it is determined to push through Macron’s election pledge to reform France’s pension system. Labor unions and left-wing legislators fighting in parliament against Macron’s plans were counting on protesters to turn out massively to strengthen their efforts to kill the bill that that would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

As large crowds marched in cities and towns, veteran left-wing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon celebrated “a historic day” of protests and predicted defeat for Macron. In Paris, flag-waving, horn-blowing demonstrators gathered in large numbers for an afternoon march through the capital.

“It’s not often that we see such a mass mobilization,” Melenchon, speaking in the southern city of Marseille. “It’s a form of citizens’ insurrection.”


In big cities and small villages, rebellion was in the air. 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.

Speaking by phone with The Associated Press, Palluel said 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.

A first round of strikes and protests brought out between 1 and 2 million demonstrators earlier this month, including many tens of thousands in Paris. Labor leaders were aiming to at least match and even better those numbers Tuesday, with around 250 demonstrations expected around the country.

The government mobilized 11,000 officers to police the protests.

Positions are hardening on both sides as lawmakers begin locking horns in parliament over the retirement reform bill.

On Monday, Macron described the reform as “essential.” His prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, insisted this past weekend that raising the retirement age to 64 is “no longer negotiable.”

Strikers and protesters hoped to prove otherwise.

Rail operator SNCF reported major disruptions, with strikes knocking out most trains 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.

Construction worker Said Belaiba was among travelers 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 Jan. 19 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.

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