Roughly half the number of people showed up on Tuesday for demonstrations called by France’s unions as had rallied last week in opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms.
Unions estimated that some 885,000 demonstrators turned out across France by 5 pm Tuesday, as opposed to the 1.5 million they said protested on December 5. The French Ministry of the Interior put those numbers considerably lower, saying that 339,000 people showed up today and 806,000 last Thursday.
Travellers across France faced a sixth day of turmoil amid massive strike action over the government’s controversial plans to overhaul the country’s pension system.
Union leaders have rejected the government’s overtures and vowed to keep up the fight over the reforms, which are set to be finalised and published on Wednesday.
The unions want Macron to abandon his plan for a single pension scheme that would scrap dozens of individual ones enjoyed by train drivers, sailors, lawyers and other professions.
They are calling on rail workers, doctors, teachers and other public workers to turn the screws on the French president before his government unveils its proposals in detail.
Critics say the planned reform will force millions to work later in life to get the same benefits, but Macron has promised not to touch the official retirement age of 62.
The strike is among the biggest since 1995, when then-prime minister Alain Juppe was forced to abandon an overhaul of the pension system after weeks of industrial action, a defeat from which he never recovered.
Most Paris metro lines remained shut on Tuesday leading to huge traffic jams in and around the French capital.
Just one in five high-speed TGV trains were running, and Air France cut 25 percent of domestic flights and 10 percent of its shorter international flights.
Some Paris museums were again forced to partially close and both opera houses again cancelled performances.
Many people chose to work from home last week and are only now returning to work, making this week a crucial test of public support for the strike.
“Psychologically it’s stressful because you don’t know if you’re going to get where you need to,” said Benit Ntende as he waited for a train at Paris’ Saint-Lazare station.
“You have to wake up earlier – it’s one of the joys of life in Paris.”
Some 53 percent of French back the strike or at least have sympathy for the workers’ demands, according to a poll published on Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.
The government’s pensions commissioner Jean-Paul Delevoye held a final meeting with union leaders on Monday to try to end the strike, but unions appear in no mood for further negotiations.
“I will not negotiate over the implementation of what I describe as a monstrosity that endangers tomorrow’s pensioners,” said Yves Veyrier, head of the militant Force Ouvrière union.
Last week, transport workers were joined by teachers, firefighters, electricity workers and “Yellow Vest” anti-government demonstrators, who launched weekly protests to demand improved living standards last year.
Hospital interns also planned to walk out on Tuesday to highlight “degraded care” and lorry driver unions said they would take action next week.
The strike has already squeezed retailers in the run-up to Christmas, raising the prospect of another bleak year-end after the unrest caused by the yellow vests in late 2018.
“This weekend was catastrophic: Paris was empty, restaurants and brasseries, even fast-food was impacted, with some losing up to 50 percent of their sales,” a spokesman for the GNI-Synhorcat alliance of restaurant and hotel owners said.
Jacques Baudoz, president of the Joueclub chain of toy stores, told Europe 1 radio that revenue dropped 20 percent at stores in larger cities.
Macron, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and senior cabinet ministers were set to meet on Tuesday night before presenting the finalised plan.
“If we do not carry out a far-reaching, serious and progressive reform today, someone else will do a really brutal one tomorrow,” Philippe told Le Journal du Dimanche.
The outcome of the tussle will hinge on who blinks first – the unions who risk losing public support if the disruption goes on too long, or the president whose two-and-a-half years in office have been rocked by waves of social unrest.
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