The nationwide strikes and protests are a crucial test both for President Emmanuel Macron’s government and its opponents.
French protesters have launched a new push to pressure President Emmanuel Macron into dropping a pension reform plan, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets and strikes disrupting transport and schools.
From tiny islands to major cities, demonstrators poured by the thousands into France's streets on Tuesday.
Labour unions aimed to mobilise more than 1 million protesters in what veteran left-wing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon described as a “citizens' insurrection."
Labour unions and left-wing legislators fighting in parliament against Macron's plans were counting on protesters to turn out massively to strengthen their efforts to kill the bill that would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.
Meanwhile, the government says it is determined to push through Macron's election pledge to reform France's pension system.
READ MORE: France readies itself for disruption as more pension protests loom
Politicians join the march
The first marches kicked off in the morning across the country, with several prominent opposition politicians taking part.
As large crowds marched in cities and towns, Melenchon celebrated “a historic day" of protests and predicted defeat for Macron. In Paris, flag-waving, horn-blowing demonstrators gathered in large numbers for an afternoon march through the capital.
“It's not often that we see such a mass mobilisation,” Melenchon said, speaking in the southern city of Marseille.
Millions had to find alternative means of transport Tuesday, work from home or take time off to look after their school-age children, with workers in transport and education sectors among those staging walkouts.
Rail operator SNCF reported major disruptions, with strikes knocking out most trains in the Paris region, in all other regions and on France’s flagship high-speed network linking cities and major towns.
The Paris Metro was also hit hard by station closures and cancellations.
READ MORE: France braces for new strikes against Macron's controversial pension reform
From schools to prisons
Strikes also hit schools, with the Education Ministry reporting that around one-quarter of teachers stayed off the job — fewer than in the January 19 first round of protests.
French media also reported walkouts in oil refineries.
Radio station France Inter played music instead of its usual morning talk shows and apologised to its listeners because employees were striking.
Even a prison, in the southwestern city of Nimes, was blocked by protesting staff, a union source said.
The French government mobilised 11,000 officers to police the protests.
READ MORE: French energy union distributes free gas in protest over pension reform
Debate on reform continues
Meanwhile, in the French parliament, positions are hardening on both sides as lawmakers lock horns over the retirement reform bill.
France has the lowest qualifying age for a state pension among major European economies.
The government has said the changes are necessary to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.
But opponents point out that the system is not in trouble, insisting pension spending is not out of control.
The government has signalled there could be wiggle room on some of the suggested measures, but not on the age limit.
Macron's centrist allies, short of an absolute majority in parliament, will need votes from conservatives to push through the new legislation.
On Monday, Macron described the reform as “essential.” His prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, insisted this past weekend that raising the retirement age to 64 is “no longer negotiable.”
READ MORE: France gripped by mass strikes, protests against Macron's pension reform