By Richard Lough and Jean-Michel Belot
PARIS (Reuters) – French trade unions crippled transport and shut schools on Tuesday but failed to achieve the big surge in support they had sought to increase pressure on President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned pension reform by Christmas.
All big unions organized marches on the same day for the first time in almost two weeks of nationwide protests, with union chiefs hoping to regain faltering momentum.
But the interior ministry said only about 615,000 people nationwide answered the union leaders’ call. This was a significant decline since the first big day of action on Dec. 5, which had brought 806,000 onto the street, though 76,000 people marched in Paris, more than the 65,000 tallied on Dec. 5.
The hardline CGT union, the main driver behind the protest, said it had counted 1.8 million protesters nationwide, 300,000 more than it had reported on Dec. 5.
“This shows that the government is failing in its attempts to divide people across generations. They only make the anger grow,” the CGT said in a statement.
Union and government tallies at French demonstrations usually show major discrepancies.
French unions oppose Macron’s plans to streamline the Byzantine state pension system and prod people to work until 64, instead of the legal retirement age of 62. For the first time in many years, the more moderate CFDT union had called on its members to march together with the CGT.
Police fired tear gas and stun grenades at demonstrators in central Paris’s Place de la Nation, but the demonstration was relatively peaceful compared to the violence and looting that marked the “yellow vest” protest against the high cost of living late last year.
Some protesters dressed in black, hiding their faces with scarves and masks, overturned bins, tried to smash advertising hoardings and hurled projectiles at police lines. Police said the clashes involved “black block” anarchists, a small minority of the otherwise peaceful protesters.
Police also charged a group of protesters in Paris who ignored an ultimatum to disperse at the end of the route and threw Molotov cocktails at police, a Reuters reporter at the scene said.
“We want social justice,” said Veronique Ragot, 55, a striking sub-editor at a publishing house. “We’ve seen our social benefits melt in the sun, and this is the last straw.”
The strike forced most long-distance trains, commuter trains and Paris metro lines to shut. Even the Eiffel Tower was closed. Many state schools were shut or had reduced lessons. Grid operator RTE blamed the strike for power outages in Lyon.
The unions and Macron are each hoping to push the other to back down before Christmas, with the prospect that strikes over the holiday would alienate an increasingly frustrated public.
“Democratic and union opposition to our project is perfectly legitimate. But we have stated clearly what our project was, and my government is totally determined to reform the pensions system and to balance the pension system’s budget,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told parliament.
Opponents of the pension reform were buoyed by the departure of government pension reform tsar Jean-Paul Delevoye, who quit on Monday over his failure to declare other jobs.
French workers receive among the world’s most generous state pensions through a system divided into dozens of separate schemes. Macron’s government says privileges for various categories of workers make it unfair, and wants a “points” system to treat contributions from all workers equally. Unions say this amounts to an attack on hard-earned benefits.
“When all the unions say ‘We do not want this reform’, the government should have a rethink,” said Philippe Martinez, head of France’s CGT union, leading a column of demonstrators in Paris’s Republic Square. “They need to open their eyes and unblock their ears.”
(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe and Marc De Temple, Writing by Christian Lowe and Peter Graff, Editing by Jon Boyle, Peter Graff, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean)