Hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated across France on the sixth day of a transport strike against pension reforms that has significantly disrupted travel.
The protests on Tuesday took place a day before President Emmanuel Macron‘s government unveils its long-awaited details of planned pensions overhaul.
According to interior ministry estimates, some 339,000 people took part in the nationwide demonstrations – markedly down on first day of protests on December 5, when more than 800,000 people took to the streets.
Nevertheless, the unions showed no sign of backing down in their biggest show of force since Macron took office in 2017 pledging to cut public spending and make the economy more competitive.
“Given the depth of discontent, there is a need to get more people on the streets,” Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-left CGT, told reporters before leading a protest march in Paris.
Behind Martinez, protesters chanted “Macron we’re coming to get you” and waved banners reading “strike or die of hunger”.
Macron is determined to simplify a system of more than 40 separate pension plans. He says a single, points-based system would be fairer, giving every pensioner the same rights for each euro contributed.
The unions say Macron wants to strip workers of hard-earned benefits and threatens their quality of life. The strikes follow months of negotiations.
PM: Brace for long battle
Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Tuesday warned ruling party MPs to brace for a long road ahead, downplaying the prospect of a speedy breakthrough.
Philippe, who on Wednesday will unveil the details of the pensions overhaul, said there would be “no magic announcements” that would bring the protests to a sudden halt.
“It’s not because I’m giving a speech that the demonstrations will stop. The speech will even raise new questions, and that’s how it should be,” he told MPs from Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party.
Disgruntled hospital workers, firefighters, students and “yellow vest” anti-government protesters also took part in Tuesday’s rallies, reflecting the broad level of dissatisfaction with Macron’s policies half-way through his mandate.
“Make our pensions great again!,” read a placard held aloft by a demonstrator in Paris, reprising the president’s 2017 pledge to “Make our planet great again.
Striking workers blocked seven petrol refineries but the government said there had been no impact on petrol supplies.
Meanwhile, public transport in the capital remained at a near standstill, with only two of 16 metro lines running as normal, nine completely closed and suburban trains also heavily disrupted.
The head of commuter trains at state railway company SNCF, Alain Krakovitch, warned on Tuesday that he expected the chaos to continue “until the end of the week” but some labour leaders have vowed to fight through until Christmas.
“Pensions are the glue of all discontent,” the leader of the hardline CGT union Philippe Martinez told France 2 television.
Failure to reform would mean a deficit in the French pensions system of up to 17 billion euros ($18.74bn), 0.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product, by 2025, according to a forecast by an independent pension committee.
The strike is among the biggest since 1995 when prime minister Alain Juppe was forced to abandon an overhaul of the pension system after weeks of industrial action.