French Protesters Take to Streets in Last Angry Push Before Vote on Pension Bill
PARIS — Hundreds of thousands of French protesters on Wednesday swarmed cities across the country, and striking workers disrupted rail lines and closed schools to protest the government’s plan to raise the legal retirement age, in a final show of force before the contested bill comes to a vote on Thursday.
The march — the eighth such national mobilization in two months — and strikes embodied the showdown between two apparently unyielding forces: President Emmanuel Macron, who has been unwavering in his resolve to overhaul pensions, and large crowds of protesters who have vowed to continue the fight even if the bill to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62 passes Parliament — which many believe it will.
“Macron has not listened to us, and I’m no longer willing to listen to him,” said Patrick Agman, 59, who was marching in Paris on Wednesday. “I don’t see any other option than blocking the country now.”
But it remains unclear what shape the protest movement will take from here, with plenty of room for it either to turn into the kind of unbridled social unrest that France has experienced before or to slowly die out.
Even as throngs 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, sending it to a vote on Thursday.
While it remained unclear if Mr. Macron had gathered enough support from outside his centrist political party to secure the vote, the prime minister could still use a special constitutional power to push the bill through without a ballot. It’s a tool the government used to pass a budget bill in the fall, but it risks exposing it to a no-confidence motion.
In a sense, the demonstrations on Wednesday were a last call to try to prevent the bill from becoming law. “It’s the last cry, to tell Parliament to not vote for this reform,” Laurent Berger, the head of the country’s largest union, the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, said at the march in Paris.
Three-quarters of French people believe the bill will pass, according to a study released by the polling firm Ellabe on Wednesday. And many protesters were looking beyond the vote, convinced that a new wave of demonstrations could force the government to withdraw the law after it is passed.
Some teachers said they had already given notice of another strike to their principals. Others said they had saved money in anticipation of future strike-related wage losses.
“The goal is really to hold on as long as possible,” said Bénédicte Pelvet, 26, who was demonstrating while holding a cardboard box in which she was collecting money to support striking train workers.
All along the march route in Paris, colorful signs, banners and graffiti echoed the determination to continue the fight regardless of the consequences. “Even if it’s with garbage, we’ll get out of this mess,” red graffiti on a wall read, a reference to the heaps of trash that have piled up throughout cities in France because garbage workers have gone on strike.
Rémy Boulanger, 56, who has participated in all eight national demonstrations against the pension bill, said anger had grown among protesters toward a government that he said “has turned a deaf ear to our demands.”
France relies on payroll taxes to fund the pension system. Mr. Macron has long argued that people must work longer to support retirees who are living longer. But his opponents say the plan will unfairly affect blue-collar workers, who have shorter life expectancies, and they point to other funding solutions, such as taxing the rich.
About 70 percent of French people want the protests to continue, and four out of 10 say they should intensify, according to the Ellabe poll.
Union leaders have hinted that the mobilization would not stop, but they have yet to reveal their plans. “It’s never too late to be in the street,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the far-left C.G.T union, said on Wednesday.
France has a long history of street demonstrations as a means to win, or block, changes. Most recently, the Yellow Vest movement that was born in 2018 led to demonstrations that went on for months and forced the government to withdraw plans to raise fuel taxes. But the last time the French government bowed to demonstrators and withdrew a law that had already passed was in 2006, when a contested youth-jobs contract was repealed.
“Redoing 2006 would be ideal,” Mr. Boulanger said. But he acknowledged that a sense of fatigue was spreading among protesters — Wednesday’s protests were smaller than those a week ago. He said he was instead looking to the next presidential election, more than four years away, to bring about change.
Other protesters pointed to 1995, when strikes against another pension bill paralyzed France for weeks, forcing the government to abandon its plan to send the proposed law to a vote.
Ms. Pelvet, another demonstrator, acknowledged that the unions’ vow to bring the country “to a standstill” last week had failed, with a fair number of trains and public services still operating.
“Nobody wants to go home,” Ms. Pelvet said. “But the road ahead is not clear yet.”
Catherine Porter, Aurelien Breeden and Tom Nouvian contributed reporting.
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