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French mass protests challenge Macron over pensions plan

French protesters launched a new push Tuesday to pressure President Emmanuel Macron into dropping a pension reform plan, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets and strikes disrupting transport and schools.

Union-led protesters came out for mass demonstrations for the second time in less than two weeks, challenging Macron’s plan to raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64, a flagship reform of his second mandate.

A police source said the authorities were bracing for up to 1.2 million people to take to the streets across the country.

If confirmed, the number would exceed the 1.1 million who came out on January 19 against the proposed shake-up — already the largest protests since the last major round of pension reform in 2010.

“We hope to be at least that many again,” the boss of the hard-left CGT union, Philippe Martinez, told media Tuesday, adding there would be 250 protest marches.

Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union, said there were “already more people than last time”, even before the country’s biggest protest in Paris had kicked off.

But Macron has shown no sign of stepping back, insisting on Monday that the reform was “essential”.

Some 11,000 police were mobilised, with 4,000 deployed in Paris alone.

The first marches kicked off in the morning across the country, with several prominent opposition politicians taking part.

– ‘Certain to lose’ –

“Mr Macron is certain to lose,” said Jean-Luc Melenchon, a figurehead for the far left and former presidential candidate, as he marched in the southern port city of Marseille.

Millions had to find alternative means of transport Tuesday, work from home or take time off to look after their school-age children, with workers in transport and education sectors among those staging walkouts.

“This is about more than pensions, it is about what kind of society we want,” 59-year-old university professor Martine Beugnet told AFP.

Paris metro and suburban rail services were severely restricted, as was intercity travel.

A union source told AFP that 36.5 percent of staff at railway operator SNCF had stopped work, a figure down from 46.3 percent on January 19.

In the southwestern city of Bordeaux, Cheikh Sadibou Tamamate, 36, said he had a seat booked on an early morning train to Paris. “Unfortunately, it was cancelled,” he said, adding he hoped to catch a later train if there was one.

Around a quarter of all nursery and primary school teachers were on strike, according to the education ministry. In middle and high schools, more than half of teachers had stopped work, a teachers’ union said.

France’s oil industry was mostly paralysed, with the CGT union at energy giant TotalEnergies reporting between 75 and 100 percent of workers on strike.

– ‘The less they support it’ –

High school and university students also joined the movement, with a few dozen students at the prestigious Sciences-Po university occupying its main building overnight.

“It’s important to get young people involved in the pensions debate,” Jean-Baptiste Bonnet, a student there, told AFP.

Even a prison, in the southwestern city of Nimes, was blocked by protesting staff, a union source said.

Sixty-one percent of French people support the protest movement, a poll by the OpinionWay survey group showed on Monday — a rise of three percentage points from January 12.

“The more French people find out about the reform, the less they support it,” said Frederic Dabi, a prominent pollster at the Ifop institute.

“This is not good at all for the government,” he told AFP.

The most controversial part of the overhaul is hiking the minimum retirement age, but it also calls for more years worked to qualify for a full pension.

“I don’t want to work longer,” said Sylvie Dieppois, 56, a kitchen helper near Rouen in western France. “My job is hard and even at 62 I will be exhausted.”

France has the lowest qualifying age for a state pension among major European economies.

The government has said the changes are necessary to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.

But opponents point out that the system is not in trouble, insisting pension spending is not out of control.

The government has signalled there could be wiggle room on some of the suggested measures, but not on the age limit.

Macron’s centrist allies, short of an absolute majority in parliament, will need votes from conservatives to push through the new legislation.