PARIS -- Hundreds of thousands of French marched in a third round of protests Tuesday against planned pension reforms, while new nationwide strikes disrupted public transport and schools, as well as power, oil and gas supplies. Turnout at the demonstrations was lower than on previous occasions.
Train passengers were expected to face more delays Wednesday, with two rail unions calling to extend their strike by 24 hours.
The protests came a day after French lawmakers began debating a pension bill that would raise the minimum retirement from 62 to 64. The bill is the flagship legislation of President Emmanuel Macron's second term.
Over 750,000 people marched in Paris, the cities of Nice, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes and elsewhere, according to the Interior Ministry. That’s fewer than on the last protest, on Jan. 31. The nearly 60,000 protesters in the French capital marched from the Opera area across the city carrying placards reading “Save Your Pension” and “Tax Billionaires, Not Grandmas.” The strike disruptions were also milder than on Jan. 31.
France’s current pension system “is a democratic achievement in the sense that it is a French specialty that other countries envy,” said one protester, media worker Anissa Saudemont, 29.
“I feel that with high inflation, unemployment, the war in Ukraine and climate change, the government should focus on something else,” she added.
Much of the Paris march was peaceful, but there were flashes of unrest; police said officers detained 17 people for “throwing projectiles” and alleged vandalism.
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne defended the government plan Tuesday but suggested there was room for adjustments.
“I’m convinced there are points of agreement to be found. I’m convinced that we can improve this text together. It will be through debate, confronting ideas and, of course, respect,” she said, noting graffiti that appeared on the meeting place of the National Assembly, including a door marked with “60.”
If nothing is done, Borne said, taxes and social charges will increase, along with unemployment and lower purchasing power. That would would cost retirees with modest pensions and “all those who worked all their lives, and certainly not the big bosses," she said.
“Voila, your alternative project,” Borne said.
Last week, an estimated 1.27 million people demonstrated, according to authorities, more than in the first big protest day on Jan. 19. More demonstrations, called by France's eight main unions, are planned for Saturday.
Rail operator SNCF said train services were severely disrupted Tuesday across the country, including on its high-speed network. International lines to Britain and Switzerland were affected. The Paris metro was also disrupted.
Saad Kadiui, 37, a consulting cabinet chief who had to go through a disrupted Paris train station Tuesday, said he did not support the “wearisome” strikes. “There are other ways to protest the pension reform,” he said.
Kadiui said he supported the principle of the pension reform but wanted the bill to be improved in parliament. “I think that for some jobs, 64 is too late,” he said.
Train travel in France is set to remain disrupted into Wednesday. The CGT-Cheminots and SUD-Rail unions on Tuesday evening extended their members' walkout by a day. SNCF said the action would lead to delays or cancellations in up to a third of high-speed trains.
Workers in oil refineries have said they also plan to continue their strike action into Wednesday.
Power producer EDF said the protest movement led to temporarily reduced electricity supplies Tuesday, without causing blackouts. More than half of the workforce was on strike at the TotalEnergies refineries, according to the company.
The Education Ministry said close to 13% of teachers were on strike, a decrease compared to last week's protest day. A third of French regions were on scheduled school breaks.
Macron vowed to go ahead with the changes, despite opinion polls showing growing opposition. The bill would gradually increase the minimum retirement age to 64 by 2030 and accelerate a planned measure providing that people must have worked for at least 43 years to be entitled to a full pension.
The changes are designed to keep the pension system financially afloat. France’s aging population is expected to plunge the system into deficit in the coming decade.
The parliamentary debates at the National Assembly and the Senate are expected to last several weeks.
Opposition lawmakers have proposed more than 20,000 amendments to the bill debated on Monday, mostly by the left-wing Nupes coalition.
Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the powerful CGT union, called on the government and lawmakers to “listen to the people.” Speaking on French radio network RTL, he denounced Macron’s attitude as “playing with fire.”
Macron wants to show that “he is able to pass a reform, no matter what public opinion says, what the citizens think,” Martinez asserted.
Rancor over the pension plan went beyond parliament's raucous debate. The speaker of the lower house, the National Assembly, reported that the bill had triggered anonymous voicemails, graffiti and a threatening letter to the head of the chamber's Social Affairs Committee.
“That’s enough,” Yael Braun-Pivet tweeted. “These acts are an attack on our democratic life. ... We won’t tolerate it.”
Several lawmakers from the far-right National Rally party received voicemails during Monday's debate saying that loved ones were hospitalized, in an apparent ploy to make them leave the assembly.
Party leader Marine Le Pen filed a complaint via a letter sent to the Paris prosecutor.
AP journalists Sylvie Corbet, Oleg Cetinic and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed.