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French unions dig in after Macron defends pension reform

By AFP - Mar 23,2023 - Last updated at Mar 23,2023

A protester holds a placard reading 'No to 49.3' during a demonstration, a few days after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using the article 49.3 of the constitution, in Paris, on Wednesday (AFP photo)

PARIS — French unions on Thursday staged a new day of disruption against President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform after he defiantly vowed to implement the change, with refineries at a standstill and mass transport cancellations.

Interrupted supply from refineries has raised concern over fuel shortages for planes at Paris airports, adding to a growing list of headaches in the crisis that include piles of rubbish in Paris and questions over the looming state visit of King Charles III.

Macron on Wednesday said he was prepared to accept unpopularity because the bill raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 was "necessary" and "in the general interest of the country".

In Paris, hundreds of protesters on Thursday morning flooded onto train tracks in the Gare de Lyon, interrupting traffic and causing a delay of at least half an hour, according to national railway operator SNCF.

"And we will go on, we will go on, we will go on till revocation" of the reform, they chanted.

Protests were planned across the country on Thursday, in the latest day of nationwide stoppages that began in mid-January against the pension changes.

Some 12,000 police, including 5,000 in Paris, were to be deployed for Thursday, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.


'Scary to grow old' 


Earlier in the day, protesters blocked road access to Terminal 1 at the capital's Charles de Gaulle airport, French television footage showed.

Half of all high-speed trains nationwide were cancelled, SNCF said, as a union source said one fourth of staff was striking.

At least half the suburban trains into Paris were not running.

In the suburb of Nanterre, Paul Kantola, a 57-year-old carpenter, said he had to wake up at 5:00 am to get to work on time, but that he agreed with the protesters.

“It’s scary to grow old in these conditions. Already when you have a pension it’s not enough to live off,” he said.

Paris municipal garbage collectors have pledged to uphold a rolling strike until Monday, as thousands of tonnes of rubbish rot on the streets.

Acting on Macron’s instructions, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne invoked an article in the constitution a week ago to adopt the reform without a parliamentary vote.

The government on Monday narrowly survived a no-confidence motion, but the outrage has spawned the biggest domestic crisis of Macron’s second term.

A survey on Sunday showed Macron’s personal approval rating at just 28 per cent, its lowest level since the height of the anti-government “Yellow Vest” protest movement in 2018-2019.


Airport fuel 

‘under pressure’ 


Around a fifth of schoolteachers did not turn up for work on Thursday, the education ministry said.

Blockades at oil refineries were also to continue, with only one such TotalEnergies site in four working in the country.

The ministry of energy transition on Thursday warned that kerosene supply to the capital and its airports was becoming “critical”.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation has warned that its fuel stocks at the two main Paris airports are “under pressure”, and urged planes to fill up at foreign stopovers.

Spontaneous protests have broken out on a daily basis in recent days, leading to hundreds of arrests and accusations of heavy-handed tactics by police.

Amnesty International has expressed alarm “about the widespread use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests reported in several media outlets”.

Paris police chief Laurent Nunez on Thursday denied this, saying the security forces only detained people who gathered “with a view to commit violence”.

On Wednesday evening, hundreds again took to the streets in Paris, the south-eastern city of Lyon and the northern city of Lille, the authorities said.


‘No legitimacy’ 


While France’s Constitutional Court still needs to give the final word on the reform, Macron told the TF1 and France 2 channels in a televised interview on Wednesday that the changes needed to “come into force by the end of the year”.

Backtracking on earlier comments that the crowds demonstrating had “no legitimacy”, he said organised protests were “legitimate”, but violence should be condemned and blockages should not impede normal activity.

The tensions have also raised questions over whether France can host the UK’s King Charles III when he is due to arrive Sunday for his first foreign state visit as monarch.

The government has said the reform is necessary to keep the system from slipping into deficit and to bring France in line with its European neighbours, where the legal retirement age is typically higher.

Critics say the changes are unfair for people in physically challenging jobs and for women who interrupt their careers to have children.

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