(Bloomberg) -- French unions saw turnout collapse to its lowest in protests against Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform as the president seeks to get the country to move on from the politically damaging fight.
The number of people taking part in marches totaled 281,000 on Tuesday, according to the Interior Ministry, down from a peak of 1.28 million in March. The portion of public-sector workers joining strikes, which preliminary estimates put at 5.4%, was close to the lowest since they began in January.
“The match is coming to an end,” said Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union, acknowledging the reform will be applied and adding that this will be the last such day of action over pensions. He cautioned that widespread anger remains and called on labor organizations to maintain pressure on other key issues.
“Purchasing power, salaries, housing, working conditions and advancement, social welfare will be central questions in the weeks and months ahead, and if we want to have influence, we have to show we’re strong,” he said.
Macron has faced down months of protests and strikes to push through the pension overhaul, which is a key plank in his strategy to improve France’s debt-burdened finances and which he says will protect the retirement system. He signed it into law in April, and it’s due to come into force in September.
The 14th nationwide protest, the first since May 1, comes two days before a group of independent, centrist lawmakers known as LIOT tries to trigger a vote in the National Assembly to have the reform repealed. The government has already succeeded in watering down the proposal, however, and even if it succeeds in the lower house, it’s not expected to get through the Senate.
Unions warned against trying to block the move, saying this would fuel anger over the increase in the retirement age to 64 from 62, as well as distrust in parliament. Macron already provoked the ire of protesters when he used a provision to bypass a full vote on the legislation in March.
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In recent weeks, the French president has sought to convey a conciliatory tone, acknowledging people haven’t accepted the retirement age hike. He has traveled across the country to discuss domestic issues such as wildfires, education and his plans for green reindustrialization in an effort to reset the agenda.
He has also sought to burnish his international image with high-profile trips abroad, including a much-discussed landmark speech on European geopolitics in Bratislava.
There are signs his efforts are starting to pay off. His popularity recovered slightly at the start of June, up two points to 31%, according to an Ifop survey of 1,012 adults for Paris Match and Sud Radio. A Toluna Harris Interactive poll of 1,052 adults for AEF Info and RTL on June 2-5 showed 40% now back the pension reform, up 2 points from a month ago, with 82% expecting it to enter force.
Perhaps the most significant impact of Tuesday’s strikes was on flights. The DGAC civil aviation authority asked carriers to cut one-third of services at Paris-Orly airport, as well as one-fifth at airports in Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Toulouse and Nantes.
Low-cost carrier Ryanair Holdings Plc said it canceled 400 services due to a strike by French air traffic controllers, mainly impacting overflights to and from Ireland. Rail company SNCF operated around 90% of trains, while service was almost normal on the Paris subway.
CGT union head Sophie Binet told BFM TV that unions will meet next week to decide in what form the mobilization will continue.
Unrest over pensions has seen France top a global ranking of protests, with more than 3,800 through April, according to Bloomberg calculations based on data released by the Armed Conflict Location Event Data Project, which collects local media reports across the world.
--With assistance from William Horobin, Jenny Che and Julius Domoney.
(Updates with number of protesters in second paragraph, CFDT union leader comments starting in third paragraph, CGT union leader comment in penultimate paragraph.)
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