More than 1 million protest across France against Macron’s pension reform

More than a million people took to the streets during a day of mass strikes throughout France, the French interior ministry said Thursday evening. Transport, schools and refinery shipments were disrupted as workers walked off the jobs in an attempt to derail President Emmanuel Macron's unpopular pension overhaul. Read our live blog below to see how all the day's events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+1). 

Protesters gathered at Place de la République in Paris for a mass rally and strike against pension reform on January 19, 2023.
Protesters gathered at Place de la République in Paris for a mass rally and strike against pension reform on January 19, 2023. © Alain Jocard, AFP
  • More than a million people took to the streets across France to protest against the Macron government’s plans to reform the pension system, of which a proposal to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 is among the most controversial. Macron insists the reform is needed to reform a moribund system – but some of the government’s own experts have said the pension system is in relatively good shape and would likely eventually return to a balanced budget even without reforms. 
  • The interior ministry said some 1.2 people protested across France, 80,000 of them in Paris. Union organisers, however, estimated the number at 2 million, with 400,000 protesting in Paris.
  • Mass protests were also seen in cities including Lyon, Marseilles, Montpellier, Nantes and on the French island of Corsica.
  • Macron, who was on a visit to Spain on Thursday, told a press conference that the government was determined to press ahead with the reform. 
  • More than a dozen people were arrested on the sidelines of the protest after members of the anarchist Black Bloc movement threw rubbish bins, bottles and smoke bombs at police.
  • Unions have called for new strikes and protests on January 31.

8:25pm: French unions call for new nationwide strikes, protests on January 31

French unions have announced new nationwide strikes and protests on January 31 against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age.

Eight leading unions held a meeting Thursday after their first day of mass protests against the plan, and issued statements vowing to push on with their action to try to get the government to back down.

7:21pm: More than 1 million protesters across France, interior ministry says 

Around 1.12 million people are estimated to have taken part in France’s nationwide protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s contested pension reform, which will raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, the interior ministry said.

In Paris, the ministry said some 80,000 people are estimated to have protested.

The CGT trade union has estimated the nationwide protest number at 2 million, and the Paris participation at 400,000.

6:44pm: ‘More than 2 million’ protesters in France, union head says

Philippe Martinez, the head of France’s CGT trade union, said that “more than two million” people took part in Thursday’s protests against the government’s pension reform plans. The French interior ministry has not yet issued its estimate, but it is likely to be much lower.

The vast majority of the near 200 protests that were held across France during the day were described as peaceful, with only a few exceptions reported in Paris, Lyon and Rennes.

In Paris, some 30 people were arrested, mostly members of a 1,000-strong anarchist group Black Blocs who wore masks, helmets and black clothes, police said, adding they had managed to split off the group from the main demonstration.

6:32pm: ‘Things getting slightly more tense’

In Paris, where tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets, FRANCE 24’s senior reporter Catherine Norris-Trent said things were now “getting slightly more tense” as the procession had reached the capital’s Place de la Bastille and the sun was setting.

“We’ve been hearing several loud detonations that could be tear gas canisters," she said, adding that a lot of people had been blocked to enter the square by riot police.

Watch her full report in the video below:



5:48pm: Tear gas in the air by Paris’s Bastille

FRANCE 24’s reporter Lou Roméo says the Paris procession has now reached Bastille, where the smell of tear gas and the sound of loud whistles are filling the air.  

'The smeall of tear gas and the sound of whistles near Bastille'
'The smeall of tear gas and the sound of whistles near Bastille' © Lou Roméo, FRANCE 24


5:34pm: Some 400,000 protesters in Paris, union says

Some 400,000 have taken to the streets in Paris to protest the government’s pension reform, according to an estimate provided by the CGT trade union on Thursday afternoon. Authorities have not yet issued an estimate, however.

5:22pm: French fear they will have to work ‘up until death’

FRANCE 24’s senior reporter Catherine Norris-Trent explains why the French, whose current retirement age – 62 – is one of the lowest in the industrialised world, are resisting the reform with its two-year age extension so much.

“They fear that further raising of the retirement age will come after that,” she said. “They see this as […] an erosion of their social rights which are so important for many people here in France.”

She added that she had spoken to several people taking part in the rally and that they feared “that they will work up until death basically”.

“Life is looking pretty bleak for them at the moment,” she said, pointing also to the higher cost-of-living in France.

Watch her full report in the video below:


5:03pm: ‘Will I ever even be able to benefit from retirement?’

The Paris rally is now en route to its destination, Nation, in eastern Paris. FRANCE 24 spoke to Farid, a ride-hailing app chauffeur, who came to the protest with his daughter.

“We’re demonstrating for her, she’s four, and for us and for our parents!,” he said. “I started working when I was 16, and now I’m 37 – when is it going to stop? Will I ever even be able to benefit from retirement and my family?”

'We’re demonstrating for her, she’s four, and for us and for our parents!,' ride-hailing app chauffeur Farid says.
'We’re demonstrating for her, she’s four, and for us and for our parents!,' ride-hailing app chauffeur Farid says. © Lou Roméo, FRANCE 24


4:27pm: Paris police make first arrests, use tear gas

Police have already arrested 20 people on the sidelines of  the protest in Paris, French daily Le Monde reports, whose reporter Pierre Bouvier also says officers have used teargas to try to calm the situation down.

According to AFP, members of the anarchist Black Bloc movement, have thrown rubbish bins, bottles and smoke bombs at police.

In the tweet below, officers can be seen running on the Boulevard Beaumarchais, near Bastille, in central Paris.


4:11pm: Macron vows to press ahead with reform despite protests

French President Emmanuel Macron, who is in Spain Thursday, did not seem to be buoyed by the massive protests back home, telling a press conference that the reform “is just and responsible”, and that France “must carry this out”.

Macron urged the French to demonstrate peacefully and to avoid any violence or vandalism.

3:54pm: Key Britain-Europe trade route disrupted by French strike

The French workers’ strike over the government’s pension reform has temporarily halted ferry crossings between Dover and Calais. The crossing is a major sea route for trade between Britain and the continent.

The Port of Dover said it had suspended services to Calais from 8am and that loading was only expected to resume in the afternoon. Freight traffic on the British side had been contained within the ferry terminal, the Port of Dover added.

P&O said it hoped its first service would leave Dover at 3:00pm, while the first ferry out of Calais was expected to depart at 5pm.

3:35pm: Reform targets ‘the poorest and women’

Marie, a PhD student in sociology, is also attending the Paris rally and says she is protesting because "this reform is unfair and targets the poorest and women”.

“It will increase inequalities and isn’t adapted to the way we work nowadays; we are more and more productive (so) it doesn't make sense to work longer," she told our reporter at the scene at Place de la République.

"This reform is targeting the poorest and women"
"This reform is targeting the poorest and women" © Lou Roméo, FRANCE 24


3:20pm: Working in prisons ‘not possible after 60’

Maxime, a 24-year-old prison guard who has joined the protest in Paris, says that pushing back the retirement age for his line of work is “unreasonable”.

“Being a prison guard is a tiring job, in Fleury (prison) we can be confronted with young and violent prisoners. It's not possible to do that after 60," he tells FRANCE 24’s reporter Lou Roméo.

3:10pm: Nearly 40,000 take to streets in Lyon, unions say

More than 38,000 people have taken to the streets to join the anti-reform protests in Lyon, France’s third largest city, daily newspaper Le Monde reports, citing a union estimate.

3:03pm: Car set alight on sidelines of protest in Rennes

At least one car has been set alight on the sidelines of the protest in Rennes, in western France, regional newspaper Ouest-France reports.

Video footage in the tweet below shows a Tesla ablaze as protesters are walking nearby.



2:36pm: Tens of thousands of people at Paris’s Place de la République

Tens of thousands of people have gathered at Paris’s central Place de la République to take part in the protest against the reform.

FRANCE 24’s Lou Roméo is reporting from the scene and says the square is already so crowded with people that they have spilled over onto nearby boulevards and streets.


1:55pm: How far will this go?

The challenge for unions, which are far less powerful in France than they used to be, is whether they can transform popular opposition to the reform – and anger with a cost-of-living crisis – into a mass social protest that will last beyond today and eventually get the government to back-track.

FRANCE 24's International Affairs Editor Philip Turle has more:

1:05pm: Trains cancelled across the country

Strike action has forced the cancellation of most trains around France, including some international connections, according to the SNCF rail authority. 

Air travel is less affected, with about 20% of flights out of Paris’ Orly Airport cancelled and airlines warning of delays.

FRANCE 24's Andrew Hilliar brings us the latest from Montparnasse train station in Paris.

11:50am: U-turns, PR blunders – and the ‘French exception’

Polls show a large majority of the French oppose Macron’s planned pension overhaul – but support for strike action risks fizzling out as the public grapples with disruptions.

FRANCE 24’s Tom Wheeldon looks at why the pension overhaul is meeting such stiff opposition and how shifts in public opinion could determine the outcome of the tussle between unions and the government.

11:35am: Government demands 'collective effort' on pensions

French Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt has acknowledged “concerns” prompted by the pension plans that will require from workers “an additional, collective effort" – while calling on strikers not to block the economy of the country. “The right to strike is a freedom, but we do not want any blockades,” he said, speaking on LCI television.

But for Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-left CGT union, the sacrifices demanded are profoundly unfair. "It's rare for French unions to all agree on something, so it demonstrates the seriousness of the issue," Martinez said.

Take a listen to both: 


11:00am: Turnout key as unions flex muscles

More than 200 rallies are expected around France, including a large one in Paris involving all France’s unions in a rare display of unity. Opponents of the pension reform are hoping to draw more than a million protesters in a show of strength, with further protests expected in the coming days.

Crowds could be seen gathering in cities across France, including in southwestern Toulouse (video below), with the Paris event set to start at 1:30pm local time (GMT+1).

Protracted strikes met Macron’s last effort to raise the retirement age in 2019 and he eventually withdrew it after the Covid-19 pandemic hit. But unions have secured few victories of late, despite staging mass strikes and protests over the years.

In 2010, more than a million people protested against a plan to raise the retirement age to 62, but the bill proposed by the right-wing government of president Nicolas Sarkozy was passed anyway.

10:40am: Where is Macron?

Macron has staked his reformist credentials on pension reform, arguing that the overhaul is necessary to keep public spending in check.

However, the French leader will be dodging the strike today to attend a French-Spanish summit in Barcelona and sign a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Both governments consider this a diplomatic bond of the highest order. Spain only has a similar treaty with Portugal; France has them with Germany and Italy.

The leaders are seeking stronger positions inside the European Union, with Macron profiling himself as the continent’s leading politician to fill the void of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel – and Sanchez pushing for a more influential role in Brussels following Britain’s exit from the bloc.

10:05am: 'You shouldn’t waste all your life earning a living'  

France's current retirement age is one of the lowest in the European Union, though existing rules already require most people to work past the age of 64 in order to qualify for a full pension.

Unions say the proposed overhaul will punish those who started working at a young age or have been toiling in physically demanding jobs.

FRANCE 24 spoke to several workers who do arduous jobs – and who are up in arms about the plans to take away the cherished right to retire at 62. Click on the link below to read their stories.

>> ‘I can’t take any more’: Working-class French lament Macron’s push to raise retirement age

9:40am: Pension reform 'dogmatic and ideological'

Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-left CGT union, says the planned pension reform "bundles together everyone's dissatisfaction" with the government, and that the rare united front among worker representatives showed "the problem is very serious".

"This will be a big day of mobilisation, especially with all the unions on the same page," Martinez told broadcaster Public Senat.

"We all agree that the reform is unjust," he added, calling it "dogmatic and ideological".

The unions are hoping for over a million demonstrators in more than 200 cities across France.

French media have reported that police are making plans for 550,000 to 750,000 protesters, including 50,000 to 80,000 in Paris.

8:45am: Schools, radios, power stations disrupted

Many parents are having to look after their children today as an estimated 70 percent of primary school teachers go on strike and many schools close entirely, the main teachers' union has warned.

And public radio stations Franceinfo and France Inter are filling the airwaves with music rather than their usual rolling news updates, while TV channel France 2 is showing re-runs.

Early this morning, strikers at state-owned energy provider EDF said they had lowered electricity output by 7,000 megawatts, while grid operator RTE put the figure at 5,000 MW – enough to power two cities the size of Paris.

The reduction will have "no impact on users", the CGT union federation for the sector said.

TotalEnergies' chief executive Patrick Pouyanne said one day of strikes and protests will not disrupt refinery operations, but this could change if the strikes were to last.

8:10am: 'Hellish' day for commuters

Public transport is severely disrupted, with Transport Minister Clément Beaune warning of a "hellish Thursday" for commuters.

Only between one-in-three and one-in-five high-speed TGV lines are operating, with barely any local or regional trains running, the SNCF rail operator said.

In the capital, one metro lines is closed completely, with another 12 "very disrupted", says the Paris transport operator RATP.


7:30am: France strikes bid to halt Macron's pension overhaul

A day of nationwide industrial action has kicked off in France, set to disrupt transport and schooling across the country in a trial for the government as workers oppose a deeply unpopular pensions overhaul.

The changes presented by President Emmanuel Macron's government last week would raise the retirement age for most people to 64 from 62 and increase the years of contributions required for a full pension.

France's trade unions immediately called for a mass mobilisation, which is to be the first time they have united since 12 years ago, when the retirement age was hiked to 62 from 60.

France's current retirement age is one of the lowest in the European Union.

But unions are suspicious of the new overhaul, eager to protect those who started working at a young age or have been toiling in physically demanding jobs.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, Reuters, AP)

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