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Live Updates: French Protest Macron’s Pension Plans

Large protests took place on Tuesday in Paris and other cities, including Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille and Rennes, as people returned to the streets to reject President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to overhaul the country’s pension system.

Turnout was about half that of last week, when big crowds bolstered labor unions and put pressure on the government, but the marches were much calmer, and many workers, especially in public transportation, remained determined to continue their strikes.

The French General Confederation of Labor, more commonly known as the CGT, said Tuesday evening that 1 million people had demonstrated around France. The Interior Ministry put the figure at 339,000.

The CGT ridiculed the government’s figure and called for further protests on Thursday and next Tuesday.

“Stuck in its denial, the government and its majority will try to boil today’s action down to the sole number of demonstrators present in the street,” the labor organization said in a statement.

The demonstrations have been accompanied by strikes, which for the past six days have paralyzed part of the country’s transportation network and made commuting, especially in Paris, increasingly difficult.

Despite sporadic scuffles in Lyon and Rennes, where police fired tear gas, the protests were overwhelmingly calm. In Paris, the mood remained festive throughout the march, which ended without the broken windows, trash fires and wafts of tear gas that have often marred demonstrations in recent months.

The protests have tapped into anger with Mr. Macron, a year after the start of Yellow Vest protests that portrayed him as arrogant and disconnected from the lives of ordinary people.

Labor unions were hoping to increase the pressure on the government before Wednesday, when Prime Minister Édouard Philippe is scheduled to unveil details of the new pension plan, but it was unclear what concessions, if any, it would make because of the protests.

Mr. Philippe said during a meeting on Tuesday with legislators from Mr. Macron’s party that there would be “no magic announcements” that would put an immediate end to the protests, according to French media reports.

For commuters, there was not much to look forward to either. Public transportation is expected to be heavily disrupted for the seventh day in a row on Wednesday, with only one out of four high-speed trains running around the country and most metro lines still shut down in Paris.

The strikes and demonstrations will continue indefinitely, labor leaders said — unless the government changes direction in a much-awaited announcement that is expected on Wednesday from Mr. Philippe, the prime minister.

“If the prime minister tells us that he’s thought about this, that eventually he withdraws the plan and that he is seriously working on improving the current system, there’s no reason for the strike to continue,” said Philippe Martinez, the secretary general of the CGT.

Until then, “I think given the level of discontent, we have to remain mobilized,” Mr. Martinez said in Paris before the start of the march there. Labor unions have taken the lead in organizing the protests and strikes that have obstructed ordinary life for much of France.

There may be fewer protesters on Tuesday than there were last week, he said, because the longer the strikes and demonstrations go, the harder it becomes for many people to take yet another day off work.

But union leaders said the discontent wasn’t going anywhere, and they are preparing for a long fight against Mr. Macron, who is widely seen as imperious.

“If he doesn’t realize that he doesn’t know how to convince people, there’s a problem,” said Yves Veyrier, the secretary general of the union Force Ouvrière.

The march in Paris on Tuesday remained calm as of midafternoon, with no signs of vandalism and no lingering smell of the tear gas that the police have used recently at demonstrations in which violence broke out.

Scores of heavily armored riot police officers blocked side streets along the march’s path with vans, but they watched passively as protesters walked past. In all, about 6,000 officers were deployed in the city because of the demonstrations.

The march left Place Vauban, on the Left Bank near the Invalides, in the early afternoon and proceeded toward Denfert-Rochereau, a square best-known by tourists as the entrance to the Catacombs of Paris.

Some shops and restaurants had closed or been boarded up ahead of the march over fears of destruction — especially banks, a favorite target of vandals.

Other businesses remained open, some catering to hungry protesters and curious onlookers. One restaurant prominently displayed a stack of pizza boxes outside, promising takeout pizza for 10 euros (about $11) and coffee for €1.50 — until one employee hastily brought it all inside as the bulk of the march approached.

Some onlookers were more hostile than curious about the demonstration. An older man grumbled in apparent anger at the protesters, one of whom, a younger woman, noticed him.

“If you have a pension, it’s because people before you fought for it,” she told the man, who responded by insulting her.

“Old jerk,” she replied, before marching away.

Tuesday was the sixth consecutive day of strikes in France that have thwarted commuters, kept children home from school, shuttered museums and left some government services closed.

“No improvement today” was splashed across television screens on Tuesday morning.

The start of the strikes last week had been anticipated for days, even weeks, and many people worked from home or took a day off. But that becomes harder with each additional day of striking, putting increased pressure on the government to find a solution.

Public transportation has been hit the hardest, especially in Paris, where the dense bus and metro network that is usually efficient has nearly ground to a halt.

Of Paris’s 16 metro lines, only lines 1 and 14, which are automated, are fully operational. A handful of others are functioning briefly during rush hour. On Tuesday, only a quarter of the buses were running.

Long lines, crowded platforms and jostling crowds have become the norm for commuters, especially for those coming from the Paris suburbs, for whom it is much harder to switch to bikes, electric scooters or long walks to get to work.

Transilien, the suburban train network serving Paris and the surrounding region, carries 3.5 million people a day. But with service severely curtailed by the strike, “we can’t absorb everybody,” Alain Krakovich, the head of the system, told Franceinfo radio on Tuesday. “The situation will be difficult until the end of the week.”

“That is why for the past three days we have been calling upon travelers to not come to the stations,” he said. “I am aware that it is complicated, I understand that people need to work, to go to the doctor, but it is also a question of security.”

Many train stations around France remained almost empty. On Tuesday, France’s national railway company estimated that only one in five trains would be running.

More people are using their cars, snarling traffic. On Monday, traffic jams in the Ile-de-France region, which is centered around Paris, totaled over 400 miles.

Dozens of union demonstrators assembled in the chilly morning air behind the gold-domed Saint-Louis des Invalides Cathedral on Tuesday in one of Paris’s most chic districts, the starting point for the march.

Sound trucks of the CGT union blared fragments of speeches from President Emmanuel Macron against a thumping bass. Sinister images of the French leader, emerging from flames or brandishing pistols against the words “Our rights, burned and pillaged!” or “Macron, agent of the CAC 40” — the French equivalent of the Dow Jones average — were plastered on the vehicles.

Sacks of baguettes to feed the protesters were piled on tables, and union workers were cleaning a big electric grill. Mourad Lafitte, an official in the printers’ union, stared up at the cathedral dome and wondered how much gold it contained.

“Give me six months to get it down,” he said. “That’s my retirement right there.”

The demonstrations were going to be big, he predicted — maybe not the 800,000 of last week, but still sizable. “There are whole professions that are extremely angry,” he said — teachers, hospital workers. “Everybody has had it up to here.”

Nearby, a hospital worker wore a mock scrub with the words “Macron, we want (hospital) beds!” A “Revolutionary Left” stand distributing buttons and fliers was emblazoned with the slogan “Macron get lost!”

“The discontent is very deep. Going on strike is not easy,” said François Sikirdji, a retired music teacher. “I lost a third of my purchasing power when I retired.”

The paradox of the current strikes and protests is that no one knows exactly what the pension changes will entail — at least not yet.

President Macron’s general ambition is clear: to unify a complicated pensions system, which currently includes 42 different programs, into a single, point-based one where everyone follows the same rules.

But after months of consultations with unions, and confusing, even contradictory statements from French officials, the government has not yet clarified crucial details of the plans.

When would the changes be implemented? How much would a point be worth? How would factors like difficult working conditions be taken into account? Will there be bonuses for working longer and penalties for retiring early, and if so, at what age?

Édouard Philippe, the prime minister, was expected to give some of those details in a speech on Wednesday. But in the meantime, the lack of clarity has created anxiety.

Jean-Paul Delevoye, a politician who Mr. Macron has asked to serve as pensions czar, said on Monday that while the “principles” of the overhaul — creating a clearer, fairer pensions system — had garnered “strong approval” from the French, their ideas about how to actually do it were “more diverse, more differing.”

Even the Medef, France’s confederation of employers, a group that is often at loggerheads with labor unions, criticized the government for fueling the protests with a “lack of clarity.”

“Today no one knows what this reform consists of,” Fabrice Le Saché, a spokesman for the Medef, told Franceinfo on Monday. “When you don’t know, it’s anxiety-inducing, it’s scary, you don’t understand, and so you mobilize.”

The strikes’ major focus is President Macron’s bid to unify France’s complex web of 42 pensions schemes into one point-based system — a central policy proposal of his 2017 election campaign.

But over the past months he has mostly let the government and the prime minister, as well as a specially appointed pensions chief, do most of the work of negotiating, presenting and defending the overhaul.

Mr. Macron did not directly address the strikes and protests until Monday evening, when he was asked about them at a news conference after a meeting of leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France over the conflict in Ukraine.

“I fully reassured Vladimir Putin by telling him that the demonstrations in Paris are completely unrelated to the pension reforms being done in Russia,” Mr. Macron said when asked whether his foreign counterparts had expressed worries about the protests.

“Everyone around the table knows what an essential reform is for one’s country and what carrying it out implies,” Mr. Macron said. “I did not feel a great anxiety, I can reassure you.”

He did not comment on the anxiety that his plan has stirred among French residents, many of whom worry that their pensions will decrease if France’s generous system is overhauled.

The fierce opposition to his pension plan has raised questions about his ability to push his broader agenda of opening France’s economy wider to market forces.

Public transportation has been hit the hardest by the strikes, but work stoppages elsewhere have also had an impact.

Teachers make up a large contingent of protesters, although fewer were expected to go on strike on Tuesday than on previous days. Dock workers in port cities like Rouen and Marseille were also protesting on Tuesday, several universities remained closed and strikers blocked seven of France’s eight oil refineries.

In Paris, several museums partly closed on Monday and some exhibits were canceled because of striking workers. The Louvre was open, but some exhibition spaces were closed, and the Palais de Tokyo, which shows contemporary art, reduced its opening times.

The Château de Versailles said on its website on Tuesday that it would be “disrupted” because of the strikes, although it was not immediately clear which parts of the sprawling palace and grounds might remain open.

Some plays and operas were also canceled. Paris Opera dancers are among those most strongly opposed to the pension overhaul, because they fear losing a special retirement program that takes into account their jobs’ grueling physical requirements.

Still, France has not completely shut down. Factories and businesses are running, cafes and restaurants are open, and public transportation in some cities is functioning almost normally.

Elian Peltier, Daphné Anglès and Mélissa Godin contributed reporting.

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