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French unions dig in their heels after talks with govt fail

2023-04-06T11:32:46Z

France faced a new round of nationwide protests and strikes on Thursday after a meeting between the prime minister and labour unions failed to break a political stalemate over a deeply unpopular pension bill making people work for longer.

Protests against the reform – which lifts the retirement age by two years to 64 – have drawn crowds of hundreds of thousands in rallies organised by unions since January, and at times turned violent.

Labour groups vowed to dig in their heels after talks with Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Wednesday – which lasted just an hour – failed to calm the situation.

They said the only way out of the crisis was for the legislation to be pulled, an option which Borne flatly rejected.

“There is no other solution than withdrawing the reform,” the new leader of the hardline CGT union, Sophie Binet, said at the start of the Paris rally.

Laurent Berger, head of the country’s biggest union CFDT, called “a maximum of workers, men and women, to join the marches across France tomorrow.”

“We’re in a social crisis, a democratic crisis,” Berger told RTL radio.

Thursday’s marches – the 11th day of protests in the past three months – could provide an indication of whether the drawn-out rallies are losing steam or gaining momentum.

The previous day of demonstrations on March 28 drew smaller crowds, according to the Interior Ministry, with 740,000 people protesting across the country compared with a record 1.28 million seen on March 7.

Paris public transport operator RATP predicted traffic would be almost normal on Thursday. Trains were also less heavily disrupted than in previous days of strikes against the reform.

Civil aviation authority asked airlines to cut flights by 20% in cities like Bordeaux and Marseille, but not at Paris airports like in previous strikes since mid-January.

Some 20% of primary school teachers are also expected to join the strike, local media quoted the Snuipp-FSU union as saying, down from 30% for March 28.

Strikes are still disrupting operations at oil refineries and nuclear plants, while garbage collectors have vowed to resume their protest from next week.

The latest wave of demonstrations represents the most serious challenge to the authority of President Emmanuel Macron, on a state visit to China, since the “Yellow Vest” revolt four years ago.

Polls show a wide majority of French oppose the pension legislation and the government’s decision to push it through parliament without a vote.

But a source close to Macron said that was not what mattered.

“If the role of a president of the republic is to make decisions according to public opinion, there is no need to have elections,” the source said. “Being president is to assume choices that may be unpopular at a given time.”

A key date will be April 14th, when the Constitutional Council gives its verdict on the pension bill. Constitutional experts say it is unlikely to strike it down, which the government likely hopes will help weaken protests.

“Mobilisation will continue, one way or another … it’s a long distance race,” the CGT’s Binet said.

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Students hold a banner during a demonstration as part of the eleventh day of nationwide strikes and protests against French government’s pension reform, in Rennes, France, April 6, 2023. The slogan reads “Strike, blockage, Macron get out”. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A protester shouts slogan during a demonstration as part of the eleventh day of nationwide strikes and protests against French government’s pension reform, in Rennes, France, April 6, 2023. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

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A protester holds a placard which reads “the water boils at 100 degrees, the people at 49.3” during a demonstration as part of the eleventh day of nationwide strikes and protests against French government’s pension reform, in Calais, France, April 6, 2023. The 49.3 is a special clause in the French Constitution, used by French government to push the pensions reform bill through the National Assembly without a vote by lawmakers. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and inter-unions representatives pose prior to talks at Hotel de Matignon in Paris, France April 5, 2023 after a pensions reform was pushed through parliament by the French government without a vote, using the article 49.3 of the constitution. Bertrand Guay/Pool via REUTERS

A banner reading “64, it’s no” is hung by French CGT labour union members to protest against French government’s pension reform, on the top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, April 5, 2023. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier

Laurent Berger, French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) union’s general secretary and Sophie Binet, newly elected CGT trade union general secretary, sit prior to talks between Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and inter-unions representatives at Hotel de Matignon in Paris, France April 5, 2023 after a pensions reform was pushed through parliament by the French government without a vote, using the article 49.3 of the constitution. Bertrand Guay/Pool via REUTERS

Newly-elected French CGT labour union leader Sophie Binet and Laurent Berger, Secretary General of French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) leave after a meeting on pension reform with French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne at the Hotel Matignon in Paris, France, April 5, 2023. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier

Protesters attend a demonstration during the ninth day of nationwide strikes and protests against French government’s pension reform, in Nantes, France, March 23, 2023. The slogan reads “for a boundless democracy” in reference to French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo

A banner reading “64, it’s no” is hung by French CGT labour union members to protest against French government’s pension reform, on the top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, April 5, 2023. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier
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