PARIS/TOURS (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated across France on Saturday seeking to keep up pressure on the government over its pension reform plans, including a move to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62.
After three days of nationwide strikes since the start of the year, unions are hoping to match a mass turnout from Jan. 19 when more than a million people marched in opposition to the plans.
"If they're not able to listen to what's happening on the streets, and are not able to realise what is happening with the people, well they shouldn't be surprised that it blows up at some point," Delphine Maisonneuve, a 43-year-old nurse told Reuters as a protest in Paris kicked off.
The French spend the largest number of years in retirement among OECD countries - a benefit which, opinion polls show, a substantial majority of people are reluctant to give up.
President Emmanuel Macron says the reform is "vital" to ensuring the viability of the pension system.
The Interior Ministry said an estimated 963,000 people had attended demonstrations across the country. Paris police said some 93,000 people had marched in the capital, compared to 80,000 on Jan. 19. The unions put the Paris figure at 500,000.
In the central western city of Tours, 40-year-old fireman Anthony Chauveau told Reuters that opposing the reform was crucial because the difficulties of his job were simply not being taken into consideration.
"They are telling us that we will need to work two more years... our life expectancy is lower than the majority of workers," he said.
The peaceful protests in Paris were partly marred by some minor clashes. A car and some rubbish bins were set on fire and police forces used teargas and stun grenades in their attempt to disperse some of the more radical elements in the protests.
SHUTTING DOWN FRANCE
In a joint statement ahead of Saturday's marches all the main unions called for the government to withdraw the bill.
They warned that they would seek to bring France to a standstill from March 7 if their demands were not met. A strike is already scheduled for Feb. 16.
"If the government continues to remain deaf then the inter-union grouping will call for France to be shut down," they said ahead of Saturday's marches.
The protests are the first on a weekend, when workers do not need to strike or take time off.
They follow the first week of debate on the pension legislation in parliament.
The opposition has suggested thousands of amendments to complicate the debate and ultimately try to force the government to pass the bill without a parliamentary vote and through decree, a move that could potentially sour the rest of Macron's mandate.
He was re-elected in April 2022 for five years.
Raising the retirement age by two years and extending the pay-in period would yield an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.18 billion) in annual pension contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027, according to Labour Ministry estimates.
Unions say there are other ways to do this, such as taxing the super rich or asking employers or well-off pensioners to contribute more.
"Even though at my age, I'm not really affected (by the pension reforms), it's important to be vigilant about our society, that there is solidarity, that it's one where people are very close to one another, and to be vigilant about caring not only for our elderly but also for our children," said Kamel Amriou, 65, a retired graphic artist.
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander in Tours; editing by Mark Potter and Jason Neely)