French activists launched protests and went on strike Tuesday in opposition to plans to raise the pension age to 64. Photo by Mohammed Badra/EPA-EFE
March 7 (UPI) -- Striking French workers brought widespread disruption and demonstrations to towns and cities across the country Tuesday in a long-running dispute over government plans to raise the age at which retirees receive a state pension to 64.
Unions expect the sixth nationwide day of action this year to eclipse the first major protest Jan. 19 when more than a million people joined marches to protest against the changes to their pension, with neither side backing down.
The country's eight oil refineries including those of TotalEnergies and Esso-ExxonMobil were blockaded, most train and metro services were canceled and many schools shut.
"The strike has begun everywhere," said Eric Sellini of the CGT union.
At least 260 demonstrations are expected. Police estimate that between 1.1 million and 1.4 million people will be protesting.
The unions' threat to bring the country "to a standstill" was palpable within hours of the start of the action.
Electricity output from nuclear power stations was reduced while in Paris flights out of Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports were canceled, trash in several neighborhoods was left uncollected and protesters blocked incinerators.
The Education Ministry said about one-third of primary and secondary school teachers had joined the walkouts.
"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, noting that the outcome was one that would affect all 67 million of France's population.
It is uncertain if the fuel blockades will continue beyond the end of Tuesday and with the strikes having had little measurable impact on the economy, President Emmanuel Macron's politically risky legislation continues to progress toward becoming law.
The government also wants workers to pay into the pension scheme for 43 years in order to qualify for a full pension.
President Macron has made reform of the country's generous pension system the centerpiece of his presidency, in part because of the ballooning deficits it will run up over the next 25 years as the country's population ages.
Failure to get his reforms through risks him becoming a lame-duck president.