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Students of Nanterre University attend a demonstration against French government's pension reform plan in Paris as part of the fifth day of national strike and protests in France, February 16, 2023. The placard reads "General strike until total withdrawal ". Image Credit: REUTERS

Paris: Turnout was sharply down on Thursday for new strikes in France against a bitterly opposed pension reform being debated in parliament, with union heads hoping for a bigger showdown to come.

The fifth day of action against President Emmanuel Macron’s reform - whose headline measure is raising the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 - aims to keep up the pressure ahead of a wider mass walkout, planned for March 7.

But unlike previous strike days, most main line trains and the Paris metro were running normally, as fewer workers participated during school holidays across most of France.

That was reflected in education ministry figures showing fewer than eight percent of teachers on strike, half last week’s level.

Employees at state-controlled energy giant EDF said they had lowered output by more than 3,000 megawatts, or the equivalent of three nuclear power plants, without affecting supply to end users.

On Wednesday, many hydroelectric plants had been disconnected from the grid.

On Thursday, 30 percent of flights from Paris’ Orly airport were cancelled.

Demonstrators turned out across France carrying signs including “retirement before arthritis” or “why not 69 years, if you’re going to screw us?”

Police said they were expecting up to 650,000 people to participate nationwide, after counting almost one million protesters on Saturday - although the unions said the weekend figure was more like 2.5 million.

Thursday’s actions were meant to “keep up the mobilisation” against the reform but “for today, the numbers aren’t so important”, said Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-left CGT union, at a demonstration in Albi near Toulouse.

“After the school holidays, we’ll need to turn up the volume.”

‘Block everything’

Polling shows around 70 percent of the public reject Macron’s pension reform plans. A petition opposing the reforms has gathered over one million signatures.

Left-wing opponents have submitted thousands of amendments to the bill to delay debate in parliament.

It is unclear whether the lower house will discuss its Article 7, which lays out the change to the retirement age, before running out of time on Friday.

The unions have written directly to lawmakers asking them to throw out the whole bill and especially Article 7.

Members of parliament have already rejected one article designed to press companies to employ more older workers.

There is “a possible majority in the chamber to vote against” the retirement age provision, Socialist member of parliament Philippe Brun said.

Aurore Berge, the parliamentary leader of Macron’s centre-right Renaissance party, said the left was “afraid of having a vote”, adding she was sure the government would get the support it needed.

Macron himself also sought to project confidence on Wednesday, telling a cabinet meeting that opposition parties had “totally lost their way” over the pensions fight.

But the biggest day of action may still be to come, with unions promising to “bring France to a halt” on March 7.

“We’re going to block everything on March 7. Everything everywhere must stop,” Jean-Luc Melenchon, former presidential candidate for the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) party, said at a march in the southern city of Montpellier.

Unions are debating whether to shift to rolling strikes after that date, with Paris metro workers and rubbish collectors already deciding in favour.