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Demonstrators in France took to the streets Saturday for a seventh day of protest against President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform plans, but turnout fell well short of projections at nationwide rallies.
Unions hope they can still force Macron to back down as parliament debates the draft law, with the National Assembly and the Senate moving towards a final vote as early as this month.
"This is the final stretch," said Marylise Leon, deputy leader of the CFDT union. "The endgame is now," she told the franceinfo broadcaster Saturday.
This week, Macron twice turned down urgent calls by unions to meet with him in a last-ditch attempt to get him to change his mind.
The snub made unions "very angry", said Philippe Martinez, boss of the hard-left CGT union.
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"When there are millions of people in the streets, when there are strikes and all we get from the other side is silence, people wonder: What more do we need to do to be heard?", he said, calling for a referendum on the pensions reform.
The interior ministry said some 368,000 people showed up nationwide for protests, which was less than half of the 800,000 to one million that police had predicted ahead of the demonstrations.
In Paris, 48,000 took part in rallies, compared to police forecasts of around 100,000.
Unions, who put the attendance figure at a million, had hoped that turnout would be higher on a Saturday when most people did not have to take time off work to attend. On February 11, also a Saturday, 963,000 people demonstrated, according to police.
At the last big strike and protest day on Tuesday, turnout was just under 1.3 million people, according to police, and more than three million according to unions.
'Future of children'
"I'm here to fight for my colleagues and for our young people," said Claude Jeanvoine, 63, a retired train driver demonstrating in Strasbourg, eastern France.
"People shouldn't let the government get away with this, this is about the future of their children and grandchildren," he told AFP.
Marie-Cecile Perillat, a regional leader for the FSU union demonstrating in the southwestern city of Toulouse, said: "They're beginning to feel the pressure, including in parliament. We believe we can win, and we're not going to give up."
The reform's headline measure is a hike in the minimum retirement age to 64 from 62, seen by many as unfair to people who started working young.
Protesters say that women, especially mothers, are also at a disadvantage in the law.
"If I'd known this was coming, I wouldn't have stopped working to look after my kids when they were small," said Sophie Merle, a 50-year old childcare provider in Marseille, southern France.
Several sectors in the French economy have been targeted by union calls for indefinite strikes, including in rail and air transport, power stations, natural gas terminals and rubbish collection.
On Saturday in Paris, urban transit was little affected by stoppages, except for some suburban train lines.
But uncollected rubbish has begun to accumulate in some of the capital's neighbourhoods, and airlines cancelled around 20 percent of their flights scheduled at French airports.
There were sporadic clashes during the Paris protests, with some demonstrators throwing projectiles at police and setting bins on fire, AFP reporters said. There were several arrests.
The French Senate, meanwhile, Saturday resumed debate of the reform.
Senators have until Sunday evening to conclude their discussions, and a commission is then to elaborate a final version of the draft law which will be submitted to both houses of parliament for a last vote.
Should Macron's government fail to assemble a majority ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne could deploy a rarely-used constitutional tool, known as article 49/3, to push the legislation through without a vote.
An opinion poll published by broadcaster BFMTV on Saturday found that 63 percent of French people approve the protests against the reform, and 54 percent were also in favour of the strikes and blockages in some sectors.
Some 78 percent, however, said they believed that Macron would end up getting the reform adopted.
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