Mass strike over pensions tangles transport across France

PARIS (AP) — France’s vaunted high-speed trains stood still yesterday, schools across the country shut down and the Eiffel Tower warned visitors to stay away as unions held nationwide strikes and protests over the government’s plan to overhaul the retirement system.

Paris deployed 6,000 police for what’s expected to be a major demonstration through the capital, an outpouring of anger at France’s President Emmanuel Macron for a reform seen as threatening the hard-fought French way of life.

The Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum warned of strike disruptions, and Paris hotels struggled to fill rooms. Many visitors — including the United States (US) Energy Secretary — cancelled plans to travel to one of the world’s most-visited countries amid the strike.

Subway stations across Paris were shuttered, complicating traffic — and prompting many commuters to use shared bikes or electric scooters instead. Many workers in the Paris region worked from home or took a day off to stay with their children, since 78 per cent of teachers in the capital were on strike.

Historic train stations stood empty, with about nine out of 10 of high-speed trains cancelled. Signs at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport showed “cancelled” notices, as Air France called off about 30 per cent of domestic flights.

An empty platform during a railway strike at the Lyon Perrache train station, central France. PHOTO: AP

Bracing for possible violence and damage along the route of the Paris march, police ordered all businesses, cafes and restaurants in the area to close. Authorities also issued a ban on protests on the Champs-Elysees avenue, around the presidential palace, parliament and Notre Dame Cathedral. Yellow vest activists plan to join unions at the protests in Paris and cities around the country, pressing their campaign for more economic justice.

Public sector workers fear President Emmanuel Macron’s reform will force them to work longer and shrink their pensions.

And they see this fight as crucial to saving France’s social safety net.

“The five weeks of paid vacation, the state health care system — we got all that through social struggles from people who sacrificed themselves financially for us to get that,” said rail worker Gilles Pierre, taking part in yesterday’s march. Pierre, who is 41 and according to the current system can retire at 52, acknowledges that the current system is generous, but argues that it’s fair compensation for the constraints that go with their jobs, like working on weekends and holidays.

To Macron, the retirement reform is central to his plan to transform France so it can compete globally in the 21st century.

The big question is how long the strike will last. Unions say it’s an indefinite movement and hope to keep up momentum at least for a week, in hopes of forcing the government to make concessions.

At Montparnasse train station, Samira Quasan, a 28-year-old tourist from Chicago, described moving around her travel plans to and from Bordeaux because of the strike. Parisian Marie Boudal had to do the same for her grandchild’s event in Lyon. Some travellers complained about the disruptions, while some showed support for the striking workers.