French unions try to keep pension protest alive as deadline looms

©Agence France-Presse

French strikers set fires and barricades to block access to the port at Le Havre on Wednesday to protest the pension overhaul.

Paris (AFP) - Hardline French unions on Wednesday kept up a series of wildcat strikes aimed at ratcheting up pressure on the government before it presents the final version of a pension reform that has prompted France's biggest labour protest in decades.

The government will unveil the revised pensions overhaul at a cabinet meeting Friday before submitting the draft law to parliament for debate set to begin on February 17.

"It's going to be Friday or never," Philippe Martinez of the hardline CGT union told BFM television on Friday.

Union leaders launched a crippling train and metro strike against the reforms last month, but those disruptions have largely ended after officials dropped plans -- temporarily at least -- to extend the age for a full pension to 64 from 62.

But opposition has since shifted to more radical actions such as power cuts and port blockades, as well as mass occupations of the headquarters of the moderate CFDT union by more militant rivals.

Strikers from the CGT's energy branch have also halted output at France's biggest hydro-electric plant, at Grand'Maison in the Alps, following a series of cuts that have interrupted power to thousands of homes and businesses.

Prosecutors said two union workers at national grid operator Enedis in the Dordogne region had been detained for questioning over the power outages, which officials say could have put ordinary people's lives in danger.

Prosecutors also said Wednesday that Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Budget Minister Gerard Darmanin have received death threats over the pension reform. 

A letter to one of them contained two bullets, with the message: "You must convince... Macron that's enough, to drop his reform, otherwise it's a massacre."

 

Roadblocks

 

Striking workers also blocked access to the industrial port at Ambes near Bordeaux, and set up roadblocks on a main highway leading to Rouen.

In the central city of Tours, police evacuated a university site occupied by protesters for the past 10 days.

In Paris, teachers, street sweepers, government workers and other civil servants threw down uniforms, copies of France's labour code and other items in front of the finance ministry.

Several hundred employees in the retailing and services sectors also marched toward the Opera Garnier in the French capital, fearing they would suffer in particular because pensions will now be based on lifetime earnings, instead of the 25 best years of salary.

"Women make up 80 percent of retailing employees, and many work only part-time," said CGT representative Amar Lagha.

"Calculating retirement on the basis of an entire career is going to penalise them," she said.

Unions have vowed a new day of mass walkouts on Friday, when the government unveils the draft bills it hopes will be approved by parliament before the summer.

The overhaul does away with France's 42 separate pension schemes in favour of a single system, with every worker earning points based on their earnings.

The move has infuriated public-sector employees as well as lawyers, physiotherapists and even Paris Opera workers who currently benefit from special regimes that offer early retirement and other benefits.

Macron says the new system will be more transparent and fairer, in particular to women and low-income workers, and has promised the reform will include a minimum pension payout of 1,000 euros ($1,100) a month.

But unions argue the changes would force everyone to work longer or face curtailed pension payouts.