French pension strikes expand, police gird for new protests

PARIS (AP) – French airport employees, teachers and other workers joined nationwide strikes yesterday as unions cranked up pressure on the government to scrap upcoming changes to the country’s national retirement system.

As the strike entered a sixth straight day, commuters and tourists in Paris used apps, shared bikes and creativity to find ways to get to work, school and museums.

Many French commuters still express support for the strike, fearing their own pensions will shrink under President Emmanuel Macron’s new plan. But some admitted their patience is wearing thin with the transportation woes, and with train workers who are striking to keep their right to retire years earlier than other workers.

Paris police ordered shops and restaurants closed on boulevards around the gold-domed Invalides monument, fearing violence on the fringes of what government opponents hope is another mass march. At least 800,000 people turned out for demonstrations around France when the strike movement kicked off
last Thursday.

Protests were held around the country yesterday, with union activists waving red flags from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Lille in the north.

Commuters try to enter a subway train in Paris. PHOTO: AP

Unions fear Macron’s retirement reform will force people to work longer for smaller pensions, even though the government says it won’t raise the official retirement age of 62.

Nationwide, only about a fifth of French trains ran normally yesterday, frustrating tourists who found train stations empty and trains cancelled. Most Paris subways were at a halt, and just one bus in three was running normally. Paris roads were jammed with traffic.

Some commuters used ride-sharing apps or stayed with friends and family near their offices. Others dusted off old bicycles, tested electric scooters for the first time or walked several miles to avoid sitting in traffic-choked intersections.

“Usually it takes me one hour and 10 minutes (to get to work), but today I left home at 8am and it’s already 10am and I’m still not at work yet,” said commuter Nabil Nouali, disembarking from a tram on the edge of Paris after coming from the suburbs.

“I understand the situation, (retirement reform) concerns us all,” he told The Associated Press. “But at the same time, it penalises all the people who have to go to work and don’t have a car.”

Air France, the national carrier, said more than 25 per cent of its domestic traffic was grounded yesterday by the strike, along with more than 10 per cent of its medium-range flights, on the orders of the French civil aviation authority.

About half of Paris schools were closed and others had many classes cancelled.

Overall the number of striking workers is lower than last week, and the strike may fizzle after the government releases long-awaited details of the retirement plan tomorrow.

The strikes are a big test for Macron, who promised to reform France’s retirement system while campaigning for president in 2017.

He has ordered two years of consultations with workers and employers about the new system, which aims to blend 42 separate retirement plans into one.

Macron argues that the reform is needed to keep the pension system from sinking into billions of euros of debt as life spans lengthen, and to make it more universally fair to all workers, not just those in certain professions.

Unions, however, fear the pension changes are part of a broader mission to dismantle hard-won worker protections.