French protesters rallied against Macron’s pension plan, but in smaller numbers than expected

PARIS (Reuters) – Demonstrators took to the streets in France on Saturday, the seventh day of protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform plan, but not in the huge numbers authorities had expected.

The protests — and ongoing strikes that have affected refineries, public transport and garbage collection — aim to pressure the government to withdraw the pension scheme, whose main measure is to raise the two-year retirement age to 64.

According to data from the Ministry of the Interior, 368 thousand demonstrators demonstrated in different cities. Authorities expected up to a million people to take part in the marches.

As with previous protests, Saturday’s events were devoid of any major clashes with police.

And 1.28 million people took to the streets on Tuesday, the highest turnout since the start of the protest movement, according to government figures.

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The government insists its reform plan is necessary to ensure the pension system does not run out of money and has said it will not back down. The Senate, the upper house of parliament, continued to review the reform bill over the weekend and may vote on the text by Sunday night, bringing it closer to enacting the legislation.

In a joint statement, the French unions, which have maintained a rare show of unity since the start of the protest movement at the end of January, called on the government to organize a “citizen’s consultation” as soon as possible.

They said the unions plan to keep up the pressure “and continue to demonstrate that the vast majority of the population remains determined to say no to the proposed bill”.

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Opinion polls show that a majority of voters oppose Macron’s plan, while a narrow majority supports the strike.

An extra day of nationwide strikes and protests is planned for Wednesday, which could coincide with a crucial step in the legislative process.

Less power supply due to strikes

The right-leaning Senate, which is allied with Macron’s centrist Ennahda party, is likely to vote in favor of the pension plan. Then it will be reviewed by a joint committee of lawmakers in the House and Senate, likely on Wednesday.

If the committee approves a text, a final vote is likely to take place in both chambers soon after, but the outcome of that remains uncertain in the lower chamber, the National Assembly, where Macron’s party needs the allied votes for a majority.

“A lot of things can still happen next week,” Marelise Leon, deputy general secretary of CFDT, the country’s largest union, told France Info radio. “Will the text be voted on in the National Assembly? We have to rally. It is now or not.”

A spokesman for Total Energy told Reuters that strikes were continuing at major French oil refineries and depots, while public rail company SNCF said national and regional services would remain severely disrupted over the weekend.

In Paris, rubbish continues to pile up in the streets, with residents reporting an increased presence of rats, according to local media.

France’s national energy production fell by 7.1 gigawatts, or 14%, at nuclear, thermal and hydropower plants on Saturday because of the strikes, a spokesperson for the CGT union told Reuters.

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The spokesman added that maintenance has also been prevented at six French nuclear reactors, including Penleigh 1.

Additional reporting by Tangi Salone, Forrest Crelin and Benoit van Overstraten Editing by Mike Harrison and Frances Kerry

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