‘Let’s bring France to a halt’: Oil refineries blocked and trains halted by pension reform protests

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Protestors, including students, chant as they march through the streets of Paris, as thousands take to the streets across France and strike in protest at the French Government’s proposal to increase the retirement age in France from 62 to 64 on March 7, 2023 in Paris. A series of national rolling strikes is seeing workers in transport, education, energy and the health service striking.
Kiran Ridley | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Strike action over plans to raise the pension age in France caused widespread disruption on Tuesday, as trains came to a near-standstill, many schools were shut and fuel deliveries were blocked from refineries.

State railway operator SNCF warned passengers to cancel or postpone trips, if possible, while Eurostar advised ticket holders to check whether their train is running. Most metro services are also canceled, as are some flights from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports.

Empty forecourts and platforms at the Gare de l’Est railway station in Paris, on March 7, 2023, as fresh strikes and protests are planned against the government’s controversial pensions reform.
Christophe Archambault | Afp | Getty Images

Unions are calling on French President Emmanuel Macron to scrap his plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and require workers to contribute into France’s shared pension fund for 43 years before receiving a full pension.

Macron has for years been looking to reform the pension system, which has a projected annual deficit of 10 billion euros ($10.73 billion) each year between 2022 and 2032, according to France’s Pensions Advisory Council. The move is fiercely opposed by much of the public.

Unionists gather ahead of a strike vote at the Exxon-Mobil Port Jerome Gravenchon refinery, in Port-Jerome-sur-Seine, near Le Havre, northwestern France, on March 7, 2023.
Lou Benoist | Afp | Getty Images

More than a million people marched across the country in late January to oppose the plans. Union reps aim to get two million people onto the streets on Tuesday.

Eric Sellini, a representative from the CGT union at TotalEnergies, told Reuters that a strike blocking the Gonfreville refinery in Normandy would run until Thursday. Another at the Donges refinery in western France is set to run until Friday, he added.

Blockages at a range of refineries could cause a petrol shortage by the end of the week, head of French supermarket group Les Mousquetaires Thierry Cotillard said, according to BBC.

Bus drivers of State-owned RATP, which operates the greater Paris transport system, burn flares behind a banner reading in French “on March 7, let’s block everything until withdrawal” on a bridge above Paris’ ring road “Le Peripherique” in Paris on March 6, 2023.
Thomas Samson | Afp | Getty Images

“Let’s bring France to a halt!” a coalition of unions said in a statement, branding the reforms “unacceptable and useless.”

The strikes come as French workers grapple with red-hot inflation, which accelerated unexpectedly in February to hit 6.2% year-on-year.

Around two thirds of the public support protests against the pension reforms, according to an Elabe survey.

But with the number of people taking to the streets dipping in February, several unions have called for rolling, open-ended strikes to voice their opposition.

Protesters participate in a demonstration in Montpellier, southern France, on March 7, 2023.
Pascal Guyot | Afp | Getty Images

Macron will seek to pass his plan in parliament by the end of next month, but could also resort to using special constitutional powers to push them through. The latter move would risk triggering a vote of no confidence and new parliamentary elections, which he may gamble he can avoid.

Macron’s Renaissance party — formerly La République En Marche! — does not have an absolute majority in parliament, but is supported in the reforms by some members of the conservative Les Republicains.

Renaud Foucart, senior lecturer in Economics at Lancaster University, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” that he believed Macron had a much better chance of passing the law then he did when he suggested a more complex set of reforms four years ago.

“This reform is essential,” Alexandre Holroyd of the Renaissance political party told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” last month, citing the extent of the projected deficit and the rise in life expectancy.

“It’s a difficult reform. Listen, we’re asking people to work more. We understand that this is difficult, but the responsible thing to do here is balance the books and make sure this great pension system that we have can survive for the next 40 years like it has for the last 40 years.”

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