More than a million people took part in demonstrations across France on Thursday, halting trains and cutting electricity production, in protest against government plans to raise the retirement age by two years to 64.
The government said a total of 1.12 million people had taken part in the demonstration, including 80,000 at a march in Paris, which saw police clash briefly with some protesters.
The stoppages are a major test for President Emmanuel Macron, who said on Thursday that his pension reform plan, which opinion polls show is hugely unpopular, was “just and responsible” and had to be carried out. Protesters disagreed.
“It’s salaries and pensions that must be increased, not the retirement age,” read one large banner carried by workers that opened the protest march in Tours, in western France.
“I’ll have to prepare my walking frame if the reform goes through,” said Isabelle, 53, a social worker, saying her job was too tough to add two more years.
The turnout was quite a large number, even by French standards, and more than the turnout at a first rally against a previous pension reform in 2019.
The leader of the hardline CGT union, Philippe Martinez, said more than 2 million took part. It is common in France that police and union estimates vary widely. Either way, the turnout is a success for the unions, political analysts say.
Police briefly fired tear gas on the fringes of the Paris protest when black-clad, masked individuals in hoodies hurled projectiles at their lines. About 30 people were arrested, police said.
The government says the pension reform is vital to ensure the system does not go bust. Pushing back the retirement age by two years and extending the pay-in period would bring an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.1 billion) in annual pension contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027, according to Labour Ministry estimates.
Unions argue there are other ways to ensure the viability of the pension system such as taxing the super-rich or increasing employers’ contributions or those of well-off pensioners.
In Nice, in southern France, and elsewhere, banners read: “No to the reform.”
“This problem can be solved in a different way, through taxation. Workers should not have to pay for the public sector deficit,” said Laurent Berger, the leader of CFDT, France’s biggest labour union.