French unions dig in after Macron defends pension reform
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Trains were disrupted and a new day of nationwide protests expected in France on Thursday after a defiant President Emmanuel Macron pledged to implement a contentious pensions overhaul by year-end.
The 45-year-old leader on Wednesday said he was prepared to accept unpopularity because the bill raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 was "necessary" and "in the general interest of the country".
Protests were planned across the country on Thursday in the latest day of nationwide stoppages that began in mid-January against the pension changes.
Half of all high-speed trains were cancelled, national railway operator SNCF said, after union sources reported around a third of staff would be striking.
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At least half the trains into Paris from the suburbs were not running.
In the suburb of Nanterre, Paul Kantola, a 57-year-old carpenter, said he had to wake up at 5 am to be able to get to work, but said he agreed with the protesters.
"It's scary to grow old in these conditions. Already when you have a pension it's not enough to live off," he said.
Acting on Macron's instructions, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne invoked an article in the constitution a week ago to adopt the reform without a parliamentary vote.
The government on Monday narrowly survived a no-confidence motion, but the outrage has spawned the biggest domestic crisis of Macron's second term.
A survey on Sunday showed Macron's personal approval rating at just 28 percent, its lowest level since the height of the anti-government "Yellow Vest" protest movement in 2018-2019.
Spontaneous protests have broken out on a daily basis in recent days, leading to hundreds of arrests and accusations of heavy-handed tactics by police.
Amnesty International has expressed alarm "about the widespread use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests reported in several media outlets".
On Wednesday evening, hundreds again took to the streets in Paris, the southeastern city of Lyon and the northern city of Lille, the authorities said.
A police source said two people were arrested in Lille for damaging public property.
Paris municipal garbage collectors have pledged to uphold a rolling strike until Monday, as thousands of tonnes of rubbish linger in the streets.
Blockades at oil refineries were also to continue, potentially creating severe fuel shortages.
While France's Constitutional Court still needs to give the final word on the reform, Macron told the TF1 and France 2 channels in a televised interview on Wednesday that the changes needed to "come into force by the end of the year".
Backtracking on earlier comments that the crowds demonstrating had "no legitimacy", he said organised protests were "legitimate", but violence should be condemned and blockages should not impede normal activity.
He appeared to draw a comparison with insurrections by supporters of the ex-US and Brazilian presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro after election defeats, adding: "We cannot accept rebels or factions."
His comments during the lunchtime television interview, when most people would have been at work, have incensed union workers.
Philippe Martinez, head of the hard-line CGT union, said that the remarks showed "disdain for the thousands of people who have been protesting".
The tensions have also raised questions over whether France can host the UK's King Charles III when he arrives Sunday for his first foreign state visit as monarch.
The government has said the reform is necessary to keep the system from slipping into deficit and to bring France in line with its European neighbours, where the legal retirement age is typically higher.
Critics however say the changes are unfair for people who start working at a young age in physically challenging jobs, and for women who interrupt their careers to raise children.
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