Strikes coordinated by French unions brought significant disruption to the country on January 19, as they protest against government plans to revamp the pension system and test president Emmanuel Macron’s ability to resist street pressure.

Workers in sectors including railways, schools and energy are taking part in the 24-hour strike against Macron’s plan to raise France’s minimum retirement age to 64 from 62. Unions are leading marches across France’s largest cities with the backing of left-wing political parties.

In a rare show of unity, France’s eight largest labor unions have coordinated efforts and the disruptions have prompted the government to urge people to work from home. Still, the success of the strikes is set to be at least partly measured by the scope of the street demonstrations. Both the CGT union and the head of the Communist party have set a goal of having at least 1 million people protest across France for what is likely to be just one of a series of actions.

“Come demonstrate your disapproval of this pension reform,” CFDT union leader Laurent Berger said January 19 on BFM TV. “It’s massively rejected by public opinion; we need to show it.”

Macron’s decision to forge ahead with his reform comes at a difficult juncture for the French economy as it wrestles with power prices that soared in 2022 and as inflation weighs on households and businesses. In an effort to build consensus, Macron has set the proposed minimum retirement age at 64, down from an initial plan to put it at 65, and government ministers have said that they are open to tweaks to the plan during parliamentary debates.

Some of January 19’s largest disruptions were in transportation. Most high-speed trains were canceled, and an even smaller fraction of regional trains were in service. In Paris, most metro lines were only operating during rush hour and even then, at less than half of regular levels. Airlines were ordered by the government body in charge of civil aviation to cut 20% of flights at Orly airport.

A walkout by staff at Electricite de France SA lowered the country’s nuclear output by 12% on January 19, according to grid operator RTE, just as a cold snap is boosting electricity demand. Strikes are disrupting the delivery of fuels from three oil refineries operated by TotalEnergies SE, though the company said it would continue to supply its clients and filling stations. They are also hampering fuel loading at Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Fos refinery.

Some 42% of primary school teachers were on strike January 19, the education ministry said, along with nearly 35% of secondary school teachers.

The combined disruptions confirmed Transport Minister Clement Beaune’s warning of “a painful Thursday.”  
Macron’s government will submit its plan to parliament in early February. Debate there is set to last into March.

Although Macron lost his outright majority in June’s parliamentary election, the conservative Republicains party has said it could back the pension bill under certain conditions, giving him a large enough majority in the lower house. Failing that, Macron could still use an article in the constitution that allows bills to pass without a vote.  

Making the French work longer is essential to boost relatively low employment rates among seniors and avoid persistent deficits in a system funded by worker contributions, the government has said.

But labor organizations argue that changing the minimum retirement age will unfairly hit the low-skilled and the least wealthy who began working earlier in life. Unions say there are better ways to boost employment among older workers and re-balance the system, including tax increases — which Macron has ruled out.

Public support for the government plan has dropped since it was presented on January 10, according to an Ifop poll for Sud Radio released January 19. Of those surveyed, just 28% said they supported the reforms, down from 32% last week. Some 58% also expressed at least some support for protests.

Macron withdrew a different proposal for pension reform in 2020 following lengthy strikes mainly in transport. At the time, he cited the COVID pandemic as the reason.