Unions Vow to Bring France to a ‘Standstill’ Over Macron’s Pension Plan

PARIS — Idle trains, closed ports, empty schools, canceled flights, uncollected trash, shuttered refineries.

That is what France was experiencing on Tuesday as labor unions vowed to bring the country “to a standstill” and send more than a million people into the streets to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62.

After two months of an uneasy confrontation and five previous demonstrations that have unfurled across the country, neither side has shown any sign of backing down.

Many wonder if Tuesday will be the beginning of a reinvigorated movement that could force the government’s hand, or instead become a final yell of frustration — lingering in the air before fading, as Mr. Macron pushes through his change.

“Will this be a turning point?” asked Chloé Morin, a political scientist and former adviser to two prime ministers.

“Will either group manage to convince public opinion or not?” she said, adding between the government, the unions and protesters “you have 67 million French people who are watching this match.”

Analysts say that Mr. Macron, facing the biggest social confrontation since his re-election last year, has backed himself into a corner by putting so much political stock into a change that few want or see as urgent. Now, failing to push the bill through could turn him into a lame duck president just a year into his second five-year term.

On Tuesday morning, there were already abundant signs of disruption.

Only one in five trains were running on many national railway lines; the Paris metro and regional express trains were heavily disrupted; some flights out of Paris’ main airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, were canceled.

Workers at nuclear power plants lowered energy production; strikers walked out of refineries and stopped fuel and gas deliveries; in Paris, trash went uncollected in several neighborhoods and protesters blocked incinerators.

Classrooms were also closed around the country, after roughly one-third of primary and secondary school teachers went on strike, according to the Education Ministry.

But despite experiencing rare unity and strength and managing to rally over 1 million people in past protests, the unions have little to show for their actions. Some now want continuous, disruptive strikes — especially in key sectors like energy and transportation, where some unions have already announced longer walkouts — which would ratchet up pressure on Mr. Macron but could turn public opinion against them.

“There is no room for negotiation anymore,” said Vincent Martigny, a professor of political science at the University of Nice. “That’s part of the problem: One of the two will lose.”

Changing France’s complex and coveted retirement system, considered among one of the most generous in Europe, is considered particularly difficult. Michel Rocard, a former Socialist prime minister, famously said that it was “enough to topple several governments.”

The current one says the retirement age needs to be pushed up to stave off long-term deficits caused by longer life expectancies and a rise in the number of French pensioners. In the French system, today’s workers pay the pensions of current retirees.

Mr. Macron was fuzzy on details but made raising the retirement age a cornerstone of his re-election campaign, and considers his win a public endorsement of the plan. But opponents argue that many in France voted for Mr. Macron not in support of his platform, but to block his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen.

Mr. Macron acknowledged as much in his victory speech and vowed to take it into account for his second term — part of a broad promise to govern with more collaboration and fewer dictates from above.

Union leaders accuse Mr. Macron of forgetting that promise and of ignoring public opinion, which remains resolutely opposed to the change. Recent polls found that roughly 60 percent of French people approved bringing France to halt.

“How can he remain deaf to more than one million protesters in the street?” Laurent Berger, the head of the C.F.D.T., or French Democratic Confederation of Labor, France’s largest union, told the France Inter radio on Monday.

The government has made small concessions, like extending exemptions for those who started work at a young age. But those were mostly offered as carrots to garner conservative Republican Party support.

With unions, the government has taken a harder line.

“I respect the right to strike,” Gabriel Attal, the French budget minister, told reporters on Sunday. But, he added, “When I hear some say they want to bring the economy to its knees, it’s workers that they are going to bring to their knees.”

While France’s retirement system could face long-term deficits, it is in no immediate threat of bankruptcy. By refusing to consider other ways of increasing funding for the system — including taxes on the wealthy — Mr. Macron is unfairly targeting blue-collar workers, labor unions say.

Last month, the pension bill was debated in the National Assembly, France’s lower and more powerful house of Parliament, where the government used a special procedure to hasten the process, curtailing discussion. Lawmakers shouted, jeered and traded insults as opponents buried the bill in thousands of amendments in a show of rejection.

The bill is currently being examined by the Senate, the upper house. Mr. Macron hopes to get it passed later this month. No one expects him to abandon the first big change of his new term.

“If he backs down now, that would be saying he gives up on governing for the next four years,” said Ms. Morin, the political analyst. “Today, his aim is for the long term, to be known in history as the president that reformed pensions and potentially reestablished an equilibrium in the system.”

But if Mr. Macron doesn’t bend, he risks cementing his image as “Jupiter,” who hurls down orders from above and takes counsel from few, analysts say.

“In one way or another,” Mr. Martigny said, “I think it’s going to be quite hard for Macron to rebound.”

The presidential election revealed widespread disengagement with politics. Turnout in the first round of voting was the lowest on record. If Mr. Macron’s government pushes through the pension overhaul despite its unpopularity, some analysts warn that disillusionment could deepen, pushing voters to the extremes for the next elections — although a long way off.

“Being the ones who opened the door of power to Marine Le Pen, that’s a real concern for them,” Ms. Morin said.

Stakes are high for labor unions, too, as they consider their next steps.

Dominique Andolfatto, a political science professor at the University of Bourgogne who studies unions, said they had played their cards well so far. They have not alienated the public and have been helped by the government’s confusing and sometimes contradictory statements. A rise in the minimum monthly pension, for instance, will benefit fewer workers than initially promised.

But the labor unions’ mass demonstrations have also been predictable, Mr. Andolfatto said, arguing that only a new element — volatile student protests, or the emergence of an uncontrollable Yellow Vest type movement — might change the government’s calculus.

“If the movement remains in the unions’ hands, I’m not sure they will go very far,” Mr. Andolfatto said, adding that it was unclear whether they had enough in their coffers to sustain prolonged strikes during a time of high inflation.

“With the increase in food and energy prices, it is not so easy to convince people to go on strike for a long time,” he said.

Some past protests have been successful. In 1995, unions shut down the country for three weeks before Christmas over a social security overhaul, including an increase of the legal retirement age that was scrapped. In 2006, weeks of protests even forced the government to rescind a youth labor law that had already passed.

But in those cases the executive was divided — unlike today. Other protest movements have failed. In 2010, President Nicolas Sarkozy forged ahead, raising the legal age of retirement from 60 to 62 despite massive street demonstrations.

“Social forecasting is very difficult,” Mr. Andolfatto said.

Tom Nouvian contributed reporting.

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