French union bosses took their demonstration against a planned pension reform to a small southern town on Thursday, as strikes showed signs of faltering ahead of a key parliamentary vote on raising the retirement age by two years to 64.
Unions were in a race against time to keep up pressure on the government, as their fifth day of protests against the reforms came just two days before the winter school holidays that could break their momentum.
“The idea today is to keep up the mobilisation… today’s (turnout) figures don’t matter,” said Philippe Martinez, the leader of the hardline CGT union as he joined fellow union leaders at a march in Albi, a provincial town near Toulouse.
Unions have so far been successful in mobilising bigger and more diverse crowds to protest on the streets, especially in small and mid-sized cities across France, with a demonstration on Jan. 31 attracting 1.27 million people. Staging the main march in Albi and not Paris was an attempt to amplify that.
But the number of people downing tools and stopping work showed signs of weakening, as workers felt the pinch of lower salaries for each strike day.
“My employer agrees that I strike for fractions of a few hours… I was working before and will be working after,” said Sylvie Lariviere, a social worker who joined protests in the streets of Douai in the north. Numerous similar demonstrations kicked off from mid-day across the country.
Public railway company SNCF said most trains were running as normal while oil major TotalEnergies TTEF.PA flagged operations were disrupted at only one of its refineries.
Union leaders are trying to maintain momentum until March 7, when they have threatened to “bring the country to a halt” if Macron doesn’t drop his reform bill, which is currently being debated in parliament.
Macron is pushing for the reform, which he has said is vital to avoid the collapse of the state pension system.
The government is short of an outright majority and needs to win over several dozen lawmakers from Les Republicains party in the lower house, before the bill passes to the conservative-controlled Senate, the upper house.
Opposition lawmakers have been seeking to slow passage of the bill by filing thousands of amendments. They surprised the government on Tuesday by joining forces to reject a proposed reform that would force companies to disclose the number of senior workers in their ranks.
But government sources downplayed the defeat, saying it was a tactical move by some conservative lawmakers who did not want to appear too cosy with Macron, but who will vote for the main plank of the reform to increase the retirement age.
The fragmented opposition, which includes large numbers of far-left and far-right lawmakers, also appears to have shifted strategy, withdrawing amendments to allow discussion on the retirement age clause.
“We agree that the core of this reform must be debated,” Communist lawmaker Sebastien Jumel said in the National Assembly, urging fellow leftwing MPs to drop their amendments before the final debating deadline on Friday.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne this month said the government would extend beneficial treatment for people who started to work particularly early in their lives – a key condition conservatives attached to their votes.
The concessions to the conservative right have cost hundreds of million of euros, government sources admit, with limited financial wiggle room left in France’s strained budget.