French unions stage marches and block ports as impact of transport strikes weakens

French CGT labour union leader Philippe Martinez attends a demonstration against the French government's pension reform plans in Paris on January 16, 2020, as France faces its 43rd consecutive day of strikes.
French CGT labour union leader Philippe Martinez attends a demonstration against the French government's pension reform plans in Paris on January 16, 2020, as France faces its 43rd consecutive day of strikes. © Benoit Tessier/REUTERS

Thousands of striking workers poured into streets across France on Thursday for a sixth day of mass demonstrations, as French trade unions also blocked ports and disrupted power production, searching for a way to force President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned pension overhaul as the impact of transport strikes weakens.


According to the hardliner CGT union, almost 250,000 people marched in the streets of Paris against the pension overhaul. The numbers were far fewer than on January 10, when approximately 370,000 people demonstrated in Paris, according to the same CGT, while France’s interior ministry then counted 56,000.

According to French authorities, 187,000 people marched in France on Thursday, including 23,000 in Paris. Meanwhile, the Occurrence firm, mandated by a collective of media outlets including the AFP news agency to provide independent counts during mass gatherings, said 28,000 people took to the streets of Paris.

Today’s rallies came on the 43rd day of a strike that again snarled train traffic and caused misery for millions of commuters in the Paris area especially, but the industrial action has lost momentum since Macron's government made a concession over the age of retirement and as strikers face mounting financial pressure to return to work.

"It's never too late to force a government to cave in," said Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT, before the street march in Paris. "Our determination is still just as strong" as when the strikes were launched on December 5, he said.


The rallies came with a short-term increase in the number of striking workers at train operator SNCF, with 10 percent walking off the job compared with 4.3 percent on Monday, still far fewer than on December 5, when over half of workers took part.

But the moderate CFDT union, France's largest, did not take part in the rally, after welcoming a move by French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to temporarily withdraw a measure that would have forced people to work until 64 to qualify for a full pension.

Data collated by Reuters from public transport agencies show the number of SNCF and Paris métro trains operating has risen, and strike observance by workers has fallen.

French ports blocked

The CGT this week set its sights on French ports as the participation rates in strikes on Paris public transport services declined.

Ferry services to Britain suffered delays and at least 20 bulk carriers waiting to export cereals were kept at anchor outside France's major ports, data from financial data provider Refinitiv showed.

On Thursday, vessels set to export a total of 536,000 tons of cereals, mostly wheat, were held up outside the ports, data showed.

A three-day walkout by dockers which began on Tuesday has led to production outages at some livestock feed factories.

In the electricity sector, output was down about 9% of available capacity.


Wedge between unions

Prime Minister Philippe’s offer to withdraw plans to raise the retirement age for full pension benefits by two years to 64 if the pension budget can be balanced another way drove a wedge between unions determined to see the reform scrapped and those more open to reform.

President Macron, a former investment banker, wants to streamline France's convoluted pension system and give French people an incentive to stay in work longer to pay for some of the most generous retirement benefits in the industrialised world.

It would be the biggest overhaul of the system since World War Two and is central to the president's drive to make the French labour force more flexible and more competitive globally.

Trade unions accuse Macron of eroding hard-earned benefits.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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