Youths advance with umbrellas during a demonstration Tuesday, March 7, 2023 in Nantes, western France. Image Credit: AP

Paris: French truck drivers and garbage collectors joined nationwide strikes against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform plans on Tuesday as trade unions stepped up their campaign to try and force a policy U-turn.

There was also widespread disruption to train services, fuel deliveries were halted and teachers walked off the job on the sixth day of nationwide protests against Macron’s plans to raise the pension age by two years to 64.

“I don’t want to work until I’m 64 ... we’re fighting not to lose our rights,” 50-year-old truck driver Mickael Lormeau said at a protest march in the western France city of Saint-Nazaire, one of more than 300 rallies scheduled across the country.

“People are fed up, they’re exhausted,” 41-year-old Jessica Trocme, a union leader in a Lidl supermarket, said in Saint-Nazaire.

Across the country, many protest rallies attracted bigger crowds than previous ones organised since mid-January, including in Marseille, one of France’s biggest cities, authorities and local media said. There was no data yet for the Paris march.

This is a critical time for both sides since the government is hoping the pension changes will be adopted by parliament by the end of the month.

Police detain a protester during clashes on the sidelines of a demonstration in Nantes, western France, on March 7, 2023, during a nationwide day of strikes and protests called by unions over the government's proposed pensions reform. Image Credit: AFP

Looking to pile pressure on lawmakers, France’s more hardline unions said there would be rolling strikes this time, which could go on for days, including at oil refineries and on the railways.

“We will continue until the reform is withdrawn,” the head of Force Ouvriere (FO) union, Frederic Souillot, told RTL radio.

Macron’s proposal to make people work longer is deeply unpopular amongst the wider public, opinion polls show.

“This reform is unfair,” said Aurelie Herkous, who works in public finance in the Normandy town of Pont Audemer. “Macron offers tax gifts to companies ... he’s got to stop coming down on the same people time after time.”

Rolling strikes?

France’s leading trade unions have so far acted with rare unity, but the coming days and weeks will be a test of their ability to maintain that united front.

A photo shows the empty tracks at Matabiau railway station in Toulouse, southwestern France, on March 7, 2023, during a nationwide day of strikes and protests called by unions over the government's proposed pensions reform. Image Credit: AFP

Union leaders will meet in the evening to decide on the next steps.

Locally, some have already decided on rolling strikes.

Eric Sellini, a CGT union representative at TotalEnergies told Reuters that a strike currently completely blocking the Gonfreville oil refinery in Normandy was expected to run until Thursday and one at the Donges refinery in western France until Friday.

“The objective is to renew the strike everywhere,” CGT representative Benjamin Tange said.

Demonstrators at a protest during a national strike against pension reform, in Paris, France, on Tuesday, March 7, 2023. Image Credit: Bloomberg

The CFDT, now France’s biggest trade union and generally reform-minded, has not committed to the rolling strikes and has said there could be other forms of protest.

While the government will be looking for divisions to emerge between the unions in the hope it weakens the movement, the CGT and FO, which are powerful within the transport and energy sectors, would still be able to bring significant disruption even without the CFDT participation.

The government insists its reform plan is essential to ensure the pension system does not go bust.

“I can understand that not many people want to work two more years, but it’s necessary to ensure the viability of the system,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told France 5 TV.

While Macron’s camp does not have an absolute majority in parliament, it can count on the support of at least part of the conservative Les Republicains party.

Even so, the legislation is having a bumpy path through parliament and Macron and his government may yet be forced to use special constitutional powers to bypass a parliamentary vote - something union leaders have warned him not to do.

“Forcing (the bill) through would spark a crisis,” CGT leader Philippe Martinez said ahead of the Paris protest march.