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French unions to hold day of strikes after talks with prime minister fail

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Hundreds of thousands of people across France are expected to protest on Thursday against Emmanuel Macron’s rise in the minimum pension age from 62 to 64, after talks between trade unions and the prime minister failed to ease tensions.

France will face another day of strikes affecting transport, schools and refineries, amid anger over the government’s use of an executive order to push through the pensions changes without a parliamentary vote last month.

Trade union leaders met the prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, on Wednesday warning that they would walk out of talks if she refused to discuss scrapping the raising of the minimum eligible age for retirement age to 64. It was the first meeting between both sides since the government presented the controversial pensions changes in January. The meeting lasted an hour but unions emerged angry and called for more protests.

Cyril Chabanier, speaking on behalf of France’s eight main unions, said: “We again told the prime minister that the only democratic outcome would be the text’s withdrawal. The prime minister replied that she wished to maintain the text, a serious decision.”

Sophie Binet, the new leader of the leftwing CGT trade union, called for more protests and strikes.

“We have to continue mobilising until the end, until the government understands there is no way out other than withdrawing this reform,” she said. “We can’t move on to anything else until this reform is repealed.”

Borne said the pension changes were necessary and would go ahead. “I told them again that I am convinced … of the need for a reform,” she said.

A giant banner with the words: “64, it’s no” was displayed by trade unionists demonstrators at the top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris soon after the meeting broke up. They removed it after police arrived.

Macron is facing the biggest challenge of his second term as president over his controversial changes to the pension system – raising the minimum age from 62 to 64, and accelerating an increase in the number of years required to qualify for a full pension. Trade unions have been leading coordinated on-off strike days since January and polls have shown two-thirds of the French public oppose the government’s changes.

Critics say the pensions reform is unfair for workers in low income or difficult manual jobs who start their careers early, as well as women who have paused to raise children.

The government has argued that the changes are necessary to prevent the pensions system from falling into deficit. France has the lowest qualifying age for a state pension among the main European economies and spends a significant amount supporting the system. But the active working population pay high payroll charges and see fair pensions as the bedrock of how society should work.

Weekly protests since January have largely been peaceful, but when the government used an executive order to bypass a parliament vote that it feared losing on 16 March, there were clashes between protesters and police.

France’s constitutional council will give its final say on the pensions proposals on 14 April, the last step before the changes are signed into law.

While Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT trade union, warned of a “serious democratic crisis” in France, Macron was on a visit to China, where his entourage denied any democratic crisis at home, saying the pensions changes had been central to Macron’s election manifesto and he was voted in based on that manifesto.

Protesters at Paris demonstrations in recent weeks have said that a significant number of people on the left voted for the centrist Macron last spring in order to keep out the far-right Marine Le Pen, not in support of his manifesto, and he must therefore adapt his policy.

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