Defiant French unions dig in after Macron defends pension reform

Kerosene supply to capital, airports ‘critical’ * Macron’s approval rating drops

PARSI: 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 growing 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”. 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 during the day, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has said. In an early action Thursday, protesters blocked road access to Terminal 1 at the capital’s Charles de Gaulle airport, French television pictures showed. Half of all high-speed trains were cancelled, national railway operator SNCF said, after union sources reported around a third of staff would be striking. At least half the trains into Paris from the suburbs 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 be able to get to work, but said 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 tons of rubbish linger in 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.

Airport fuel ‘under pressure’

A survey on Sunday showed Macron’s personal approval rating at just 28 percent, its lowest level since the height of the anti-government “Yellow Vest” protest movement in 2018-2019. 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 from “gatherings towards committing violence”. On Wednesday evening, hundreds again took to the streets in Paris, the southeastern city of Lyon and the northern city of Lille, the authorities said.


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 organized protests were “legitimate”, but violence should be condemned and blockages should not impede normal activity.

He appeared to draw a comparison with insurrections by supporters of the ex-US and Brazilian presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro after election defeats, adding: “We cannot accept rebels or factions.” His comments during the lunchtime interview, when most people would have been at work, have incensed union workers.

Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-line CGT union, said that the remarks showed “disdain for the thousands of people who have been protesting”. The tensions have also raised questions over whether France can host the UK’s King Charles III when he arrives 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 neighbors, where the legal retirement age is typically higher. Critics however say the changes are unfair for people who start working at a young age in physically challenging jobs, and for women who interrupt their careers to raise children. – AFP

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