French Protesters Rally in Last Angry Push Before Pension Bill Vote

French Protesters Rally in Last Angry Push Before Pension Bill Vote

PARIS — Hundreds of thousands of French protesters poured into cities across the country on Wednesday, and striking workers disrupted railway lines and closed schools to protest the government’s plan to raise the statutory retirement age, in a last show of force before the contested law goes to vote on Thursday.

The march — the eighth national mobilization of its kind in two months — and the strikes embodied the showdown between two seemingly intransigent forces: President Emmanuel Macron, unwavering in his determination to reform pensions, and large crowds of protesters who have sworn to continue the fight even if the bill to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 is passed by Parliament – ​​as many believe.

“Macron has not listened to us and I am no longer willing to listen to him,” said Patrick Agman, 59, who marched in Paris on Wednesday. “I see no other option but to blockade the country now.”

However, it remains unclear what form the protest movement will take from here, with plenty of room for it to either morph into the kind of rampant social unrest France has seen before, or slowly die off.

As crowds marched in cities from Le Havre in Normandy to Nice on the French Riviera on Wednesday, a joint committee of lawmakers from both houses of parliament agreed on a joint version of the pension bill and sent it to a vote on Thursday.

While it remained unclear whether Mr Macron had garnered enough support from outside his centrist political party to secure the vote, the prime minister could still use a special constitutional power to pass the law without a vote. It’s a tool the government used to pass a budget law in the autumn, but it risks facing a motion of no confidence.

In a way, Wednesday’s demonstrations were a last-ditch call to prevent the law from going into effect. “It’s all the rage to tell Parliament not to vote for this reform,” said Laurent Berger, leader of the country’s largest trade union, the French Confederation of Democratic Trade Unions, at the march in Paris.

Three quarters of French people believe the law will be passed, according to a study by the Ellabe polling institute published on Wednesday. And many protesters looked beyond the vote, convinced that a new wave of demonstrations could force the government to withdraw the law once it’s passed.

Some teachers said they had already informed their principals about another strike. Others said they had saved money in anticipation of future strike-related pay cuts.

“The aim is really to last as long as possible,” said Bénédicte Pelvet, 26, who was demonstrating while holding a box raising money to support striking rail workers.

All along the march route in Paris, colorful signs, banners and graffiti reflected a determination to continue the struggle regardless of the consequences. “Even when it comes to garbage, we’ll get out of this mess,” reads red graffiti on a wall, a reference to the mountains of garbage that have piled up in cities in France because garbage workers went on strike.

Rémy Boulanger, 56, who has taken part in all eight nationwide anti-pensions demonstrations, said anger had grown among protesters at a government he said had “turned a deaf ear to our demands”.

France relies on payroll taxes to fund the pension system. Mr Macron has long argued that people need to work longer to support retirees who live longer. But opponents say the plan will hit workers who have shorter life expectancies unfairly, pointing to other funding solutions, such as taxing the wealthy.

About 70 percent of French people want the protests to continue, according to the Ellabe poll, and four in 10 say they should intensify.

Union leaders have indicated the mobilization would not stop, but they have yet to disclose their plans. “It’s never too late to take to the streets,” said Philippe Martinez, leader of the far-left union CGT, on Wednesday.

France has a long history of street demonstrations as a means to gain or block change. Most recently, the Yellow Vests movement, launched in 2018, led to months of demonstrations and forced the government to withdraw plans to increase fuel taxes. But the last time the French government bowed to protesters and withdrew a law that had already been passed was in 2006, when a controversial youth employment contract was scrapped.

“A repeat in 2006 would be ideal,” said Mr. Boulanger. However, he acknowledged that a sense of fatigue was spreading among the protesters – Wednesday’s protests were smaller than a week ago. He said he is instead looking to the next presidential election, more than four years away, to bring about change.