Protesters march during a rally in Bayonne, southwestern France, Thursday, April 6, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Paris: French demonstrators took to the streets Thursday for another day of protests and strikes to denounce President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform, after the latest talks between the government and unions ended in deadlock.

Macron, currently on a visit to China, is facing the biggest challenge of his second term over his flagship pension overhaul, which includes raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 and demanding people work longer for a full payout.

All sides in the standoff are awaiting an April 14 verdict on the validity of the reform by France’s Constitutional Council, which has the power to strike out some or even all of the legislation.

While council members, known as the “wise ones”, will make a decision in line with a strict interpretation of the law, unions want to show the protest movement still has drive.

“We’re in the middle of a social crisis, a democratic crisis,” Laurent Berger, head of the centrist CFDT union, told RTL radio.

“It’s a problem... that needs to be solved by the president.”

Demonstrations were held across the country, with people brandishing placards or waving union flags from Nantes in the west to the southern coastal cities of Montpellier and Marseille.

“We haven’t given up yet and we don’t intend to,” said 50-year-old public servant Davy Chretien as he marched in Marseille.

Youths run though tear gas during a protest in Nantes, western France, on Thursday, April 6, 2023. Image Credit: AP

There have been signs that the two-and-a-half-month protest movement is starting to lose some momentum, and unions have been hoping for a mass turnout on the 11th day of action since January.

Many of the protests turned violent after Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne invoked on March 16 a controversial executive power to ram the bill through parliament without a vote.

On Thursday, striking railway workers stormed the former headquarters of the Credit Lyonnais bank in central Paris, a famed building that now houses companies including the BlackRock investment firm, setting off smoke flares and whistling in a 20-minute action.

Losing steam?

France’s eight main labour unions said a meeting with Borne on Wednesday was a “failure” after she refused to discuss going back on the minimum retirement age of 64.

It was the first such gathering between the two sides since the government presented the contentious pension bill in January.

Macron is to remain for the rest of the week in China, where an aide denied the allegation of a “democratic crisis”, saying the pension change was in the president’s manifesto during his re-election campaign last year.

“You can’t speak of a democratic crisis when the bill has been enacted, explained to the public and the government is taking responsibility for it,” said the aide, asking not to be identified by name.

Police are expecting 600,000 to 800,000 people to protest nationwide on Thursday.

Unions have called for a record turnout, but numbers for strikes and protests on Tuesday last week were down compared to the week earlier.

A record number of people, more than 1.2 million, had marched against the reform on March 7.

The Paris metro system for the first time on a strike day experienced minimal disruption, and across the country only one in four high-speed trains was cancelled.

Students picketed outside schools and universities in several cities, but the education ministry said only eight percent of schoolteachers were on strike.

‘Intermediate moment’

Political analyst Dominique Andolfatto said Thursday’s action would be an “intermediate moment” before the Constitutional Council gives its verdict on April 14.

“Not everything depends on today,” he told France Info radio.

But “if there is a lower turnout, the government will think its patience has paid off.”

The government has argued that working longer is necessary to prevent the pension system from plunging into deficit.

In the rest of Europe, people mostly retire in their late sixties as life expectancy has increased.

Critics say the pension reform is unfair for people in tough jobs who start working early, as well as women who interrupt their careers to raise children.

If the Constitutional Council gives its green light, Macron will be able to sign the changes into law.

But the standoff has eroded his popularity, with a poll suggesting Wednesday that far-right leader Marine Le Pen would beat him if the presidential election of last year were repeated now.

The survey from the Elabe group for BFM television indicated Le Pen would score 55 percent and Macron 45 percent if they faced each other in a run-off vote.