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France braces for new strikes against Macron pension reform

In this file photo taken on January 19, 2023 a demonstrator holds a sign reading 'Metro, job, tomb' during a rally as workers go on strike over French President's plan to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 in Paris. -- AFP
In this file photo taken on January 19, 2023 a demonstrator holds a sign reading 'Metro, job, tomb' during a rally as workers go on strike over French President's plan to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 in Paris. -- AFP

PARIS: France on Monday braced for another day of mass protests and strikes over proposed pension reforms championed by President Emmanuel Macron, with the government and its left-wing opponents trading blame for the expected disruption.

Around 1.1 million people took to the streets for the first strike day on January 19, according to official statistics, the biggest demonstrations since the last major round of pension reform under right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. A police source said that security forces were expecting similarly sized crowds on Tuesday in 240 demonstrations around the country, in addition to mass strike disruption to transport, education and other services.

With unions warning more stoppages are to come, the strikes represent a major test for Macron as he seeks to implement a showcase policy of his second term in office.

The president's ministers and their opponents are desperately seeking to sway public opinion ahead of what is expected to be a bitter and costly standoff if more strikes are called over the next month.

Senior hard-left MP Mathilde Panot from the France Unbowed (LFI) party accused Macron and his ministers of being responsible for the stoppages that are to cripple public transport and other services.

"They're the ones who want to wreak havoc on the country," she told BFM TV while also criticising comments by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin over the weekend as a "provocation."

Darmanin, a close Macron ally, said on Saturday that left-wing political parties were "only looking to screw up the country" and were defending "idleness and champagne socialism."

The most controversial part of the proposed reform is hiking the minimum retirement age to 64 from its current level of 62, which is the lowest level in any major European economy.

Macron made the change part of this re-election manifesto in April last year and he insists it is needed to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.

Opponents point out that the system is currently balanced and that the head of the independent Pensions Advisory Council recently told parliament that "pension spending is not out of control, it's relatively contained."

For pro-business Macron, who has repeatedly told French people they "need to work more", failure to succeed with a signature proposal would severely undermine his credibility for the remainder of his second and last term in office, analysts say.

The government headed by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has signalled there is wiggle room on some measures as parliamentary committees started examining the draft law on Monday.

Conditions could be improved for people who started working very young, as well as for mothers who interrupted their careers to look after their children and for people who invested in further education, Borne has suggested.

But the headline age limit of 64 is not up for discussion, she said on Sunday, calling it "non-negotiable."

Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT union, warned that the Borne "cannot remain deaf to this formidable mobilisation."

"Listen, listen, listen to this discontent," he told France 2 TV.

Macron has so far commented relatively little on the tensions, seeking to stay above the fray of daily debate.

Darmanin's intervention has not helped reduce strains, with the tough-talking minister telling the Le Parisien daily on Saturday the left were defending an idea of a "society without work and effort".

Most Paris metro and suburban rail services will be severely restricted on Tuesday, said operator RATP, while intercity travel will be badly disrupted with just one high speed TGV in three, according to SNCF.

Air travel is less badly affected with Air France saying it would cancel one in 10 short and medium haul services while adding long-haul would be unaffected.

Only minor disruption is expected on international Thalys and Eurostar train services.

Macron and his allies are also facing struggles in parliament as well as on the street.

The left-wing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft legislation in a bid to slow its path through parliament.

Macron's centrist allies, short of an absolute majority in parliament, will need votes from conservatives to get their pensions plan approved.

A new poll by the OpinionWay survey group, published on Monday in Les Echos newspaper, showed that 61 per cent of French people supported the protest movement, a rise of 3.0 percentage points from January 12.

Darmanin said 11,000 police, including 4,000 in Paris, would be deployed on Tuesday across France to ensure demonstrations passed peacefully. -- AFP

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