Fuel depot workers were withholding deliveries

Paris (France) (AFP) - French unions on Wednesday pressed a standoff with the government over a deeply unpopular pensions overhaul, with fuel deliveries, trains and flights disrupted for a second day following mass rallies.

Key sea ports were also blockaded, as dock workers were among those to join rolling strikes seeking to convince President Emmanuel Macron to reverse course on the bill he has championed.

The government says raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 and stiffening the requirements for a full pension are essential to keep the system from sinking into deficit.

France lags behind most of its European neighbours, which have hiked the retirement age to 65 or above.

But the changes have faced stiff resistance in parliament and in the street since mid-January, with the opposition and unions charging the changes are unfair, especially for low-skilled workers and women.

EU retirement ages on the rise

Unions on Tuesday night called for an urgent meeting with the president after strikes hobbled the country and 1.28 million people took to the streets, according to official figures.

But the presidency has not yet directly responded to their request.

Unions have announced a new day of demonstrations for Saturday, and some have vowed to keep up walkouts with rolling indefinite strikes.

- ‘Extra pressure’ -

Eric Sellini, national coordinator of the CGT union federation at energy giant TotalEnergies, said workers at most fuel shipping sites were again on strike on Wednesday morning.

The FO union at the same company said the action was necessary to “put extra pressure on the government”.

Production however did not appear to have stopped at the refineries, and TotalEnergies has said its petrol stations are well stocked.

In the transport sector, national railway operator SNCF said more than half of high-speed trains had been cancelled, with only one train in 10 operating between provinces.

Dockers in Le Havre blocked access to the port

International rail travel remained slightly affected, with three out of four Eurostar trains running.

One in five Air France flights did not take off, with more hassle due at airports nationwide on Thursday and Friday as air traffic controllers keep up their strike.

Disgruntled dock workers were preventing access to several ports including the key hubs of Marseille on the Mediterranean and Le Havre on the Channel, the CGT said.

The port blockages have prevented new deliveries by sea of liquified natural gas, though the hydrocarbon continues to flow into France through pipelines from Norway and Spain.

- Cabinet ‘door open’ -

Strikers in the energy sector have since Tuesday staged wildcat power cuts, plunging certain sites across the country into darkness.

Government spokesman Olivier Veran said on Wednesday morning that officials remained open to dialogue as the bill makes its way through parliament.

“The government’s door is more than open,” Veran told RTL radio.

But “we respect the institutions,” he said. “The government and prime minister are leading the text through parliament.”

The reform is now being debated in the upper-house Senate, with a vote by both houses of parliament expected by the middle of the month or by March 26 at the latest.

Wednesday's protests -- including in the southern city of Toulouse -- were some of the biggest in decades

The government hopes to be able to push through the bill with backing from the right, without having to resort to a controversial mechanism that would bypass a parliamentary vote but risk sparking more anger among voters.

Some two in three people are against the pensions reform, but around the same number believe it will be implemented, according to a poll by the Elabe survey group published on Monday.

Wednesday’s protests were some of the biggest in decades and slightly bigger than a previous round of demonstrations on January 31.