French protesters turn out against Macron’s pension plan, but in lower than expected numbers

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Demonstrators attend a march against the government’s pension reform plan in Paris, France, March 11, 2023. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

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By Benoit Van Overstraeten and Forrest Crellin

PARIS (Reuters) -Protesters took to the streets in France on Saturday on a seventh day of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular pension reform plan, but not in the huge numbers authorities had expected.

The protests – and rolling strikes that have affected refineries, public transport and garbage collections – aim to pressure the government to withdraw the pension plan, whose key measure is raising the retirement age by two years to 64.

According to figures from the interior ministry, 368,000 demonstrators marched through various cities. Authorities had expected up to 1 million people to take part in the marches.

As with the previous protests, Saturday’s events were free of any major scuffles with the police.

On Tuesday, 1.28 million people took to the streets, the highest turnout since the start of the protest movement, according to government figures.

The government insists its reform plan is essential to ensure the pension system does not run out of money and has said it will not back down. The Senate, the upper house of Parliament, continued to review the reform bill during the weekend and may vote on the text by Sunday night, moving it closer to enactment.

In a joint statement, the French unions, maintaining a rare show of unity since the protest movement was launched at the end of January, called on the government to organize a “citizens’ consultation” as soon as possible.

The unions plan to keep up pressure “and to keep on proving that the vast majority of the population remains determined to say no to the proposed bill,” they said.

Opinion polls show a majority of voters oppose Macron’s plan, while a slim majority supports the strike actions.

An additional day of nationwide strikes and protests was planned for this Wednesday, which could coincide with a crucial step in the legislative process.

LOWER POWER SUPPLY DUE TO THE STRIKES

The right-leaning Senate, aligning with Macron’s centrist Renaissance party, is likely to vote in favour of the pension plan. It would then be reviewed by a joint committee of lower and upper house lawmakers, probably on Wednesday.

If the committee agrees on a text, a final vote in both chambers would likely take place soon after, but the outcome of that still seems uncertain in the lower chamber, the National Assembly, where Macron’s party needs allies’ votes for a majority.

“A lot of things can still happen next week,” Marylise Leon, deputy secretary general of the CFDT union, the country’s largest, told Franceinfo radio. “Will the text be voted in the National Assembly? We have to rally. It’s now or never.”

A spokesperson for TotalEnergies told Reuters that strikes continue in the oil major’s French refineries and depots, while public railway operator SNCF said national and regional services would remain heavily disrupted over the weekend.

In Paris, garbage continues to pile up on the streets, with residents noting a growing presence of rats, according to local media.

National power production in France was reduced by 7.1 gigawatts (GW), or 14%, at nuclear, thermal and hydropower plants on Saturday due to the strikes, a CGT union spokesperson told Reuters.

Maintenance was also blocked at six French nuclear reactors, including Penly 1, the spokesperson added.

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