April 13. 2024. 5:14

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French protest pensions reform in record numbers amid energy output threat

The French took to the streets in record numbers on Tuesday to protest the controversial pensions reform for the sixth time since January, with energy sector players promising a ‘hellish’ week for the government as it is set on cutting energy supplies.

Up to 1.28 million people took to the streets across the country, according to the Home office, the highest turnout since the start of the movement. Unions, meanwhile, claim the number was nearer 3.5 million.

France must be brought to a “standstill” on Tuesday, according to trade union leaders.

The energy sector, which is at the protests’ helm, is promising the government a “hell week”.

On Friday, workers across all nuclear plants voted in favour of ‘continuous’ strikes for the whole week. Electricity production was down 5,000 megawatts (MW) over the weekend.

TotalEnergies’ fuel distribution plants also announced blockages would roll over to Wednesday, according to trade union officials. The company made it clear that there were no fuel shortages in sight for the time being.

At the same time, France’s four liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals announced they would stop all activity until 13 March, while workers in all 14 gas storage facilities will vote on whether to remain closed on a daily basis.

The industry is warning that it might not get the energy supply it needs to function appropriately.

“By week’s end, gas flows will reduce, some industries might struggle”, far-left CGT unionist Frédéric Ben told La Tribune.

Protestors are against raising the legal retirement age from 62 to 64, which is deemed merely financial and has unequal distributional effects. According to them, it would hurt those close to retirement and the poorest segments of the population who cannot afford to retire early the most.

Some economic sectors, like the oil and gas industry, also want to preserve historic pensions systems that allow for younger retirement ages and more advantageous pay. The reform currently under parliamentary scrutiny intends to do away with so-called “special systems” altogether.

“This reform is unjust: no one in the country wants to see it through,” far-left MP Clémence Guetté said on Twitter. She claimed that protests will not end until the bill is eliminated altogether.

Most of the population (68%) oppose the pensions reform, with 59% fully supporting the strikes, a population-wide survey from 5 March has found.

Government officials, meanwhile, warned that blocking the country would hurt fellow citizens.

“When political leaders call to ‘block’ the country, it is French people they are stopping from going about their lives and from working”, Public Finance Minister Gabriel Attal said over the weekend.

As the protests rage on, “my thoughts go to the millions of French workers who woke up even earlier than usual today to get to work”, he added during a Senate debate on Tuesday.

However, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would not back down.

The reform is necessary to cater for an ever-growing pensions deficit, which, according to government estimates, would reach €150 billion by 2030 if nothing is done, he claims.

The bill is going through the Senate after a hasty review in the National Assembly. Unlike any normal bill proposal, the reform was introduced in parliament as an ‘amending bill’ to the 2023 social security budget, which was approved in December 2022.

It enables the government to use a specific Constitutional tool that speeds up debates to a maximum of 50 days across both the National Assembly and the Senate.

If one of the legislative houses fails to review the entire bill in time because of lengthy debates, it goes to the other one without a vote, and if debates are not over by the end of the 50 days, the government can legislate through unilateral decrees.

(Theo Bourgery-Gonse | EURACTIV.fr)