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Strike action over Macron’s pensions plan brings major disruption to France | France

Hundreds of thousands were expected to take part in street demonstrations across France as part of a second round of coordinated strikes against Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular plans to raise the retirement age to 64.

Transport, schools and the energy sector were hit by the strikes on Tuesday. Local buses, trains and trams in cities from Paris to Nice, as well as regional and high-speed trains across the country, were “very seriously disrupted”, according to rail operators.

Air France has said that one in ten short and medium haul flights will be cancelled. According to the main teachers’ union, about half of all kindergarten and elementary school teachers are on strike.

Police expected about 1 million people to take part in street demonstrations in cities and towns across France – similar to the high turnout on the first day of strikes and protests last week. On January 19, more than 1.1 million people took to the largest demonstration against pension changes in more than a decade, the largest demonstration since right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the retirement age from 60 to 62 in 2010.

Polls show that most French people disapprove of Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, with most people supporting the protests. All the major unions came together in a rare show of unity, and the massive street demonstrations were the first major test of the centrist president’s second term in office.

Macron repeatedly told the French that they “need to work harder” and made the issue of pensions an indicator of his goal to transform France and overhaul its social model and welfare system. In recent days, the government has hardened its tone, insisting that changes will come: raising the retirement age for most people from 62 to 64 and increasing the number of years of contributions needed to receive a full pension.

On Monday evening, the president said reform was “necessary when comparing ourselves to the rest of Europe” and that changes needed to be made to “save” the French public pension system. The retirement age in France, at 62, is the lowest of any major European economy.

The government says the changes are critical to guaranteeing the future funding of the pension system, which is projected to run into a deficit in the next few years. But political opponents and trade unions argue that the system is now balanced, noting that the head of an independent advisory council on pensions recently told Parliament that “pension spending is not out of control, it is relatively limited.”

Prime Minister Elizabeth Bourne said raising the retirement age to 64 was “non-negotiable”. But Bourne is under pressure to make some changes to the offerings, especially for mothers who have interrupted their careers to babysit and who may be at a disadvantage compared to men.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin took advantage of the spat to attack the left, saying this weekend that parties on the left “are only looking to screw up the country” and are defending “idleness and socialism with champagne.”

Pension changes have yet to pass through parliament, where Macron’s centrist grouping has lost an absolute majority. The leftist opposition introduced more than 7,000 amendments to the bill in an attempt to slow its progress through parliament. The government hoped to pass the bill quickly, with the backing of some lawmakers on the right-wing Les Républicains, but the prime minister still faces the challenge of building support inside and outside of Macron’s centrist faction.

An Odoxa poll for Public Senat TV and regional newspapers on Tuesday showed Macron and Bourne’s popularity plummeted five points in one month.

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