France at standstill as workers strike over pensions reform

Around a million people have taken to the streets around France against pension reform in the biggest strike since Emmanuel Macron took power, seen as a make-or-break moment for his presidency.

The country ground to a halt on Thursday as schools, railway stations and public buildings were shut on what has been dubbed “Black Thursday”.

It was one of the most crippling strikes since 1995, when France was paralysed for three weeks.

Élisabeth Borne, the transport minister, said that she expected the public-transport disruption to continue on Friday. Union leaders predict that the country will still be at a standstill next week.

With nine out of ten trains cancelled, eleven of Paris’ fourteen underground lines closed and more than half of the country’s teachers off work, millions of workers and children stayed at home.

Tens of thousands strike against pension reforms in France that have yet to be divulged in detailCredit:

No tickets are available on Eurostar trains until Tuesday. The company said it had cancelled almost 100 services until December 10 due to the strikes. Ryanair and British Airways also said they had to make cancellations.

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Air France cancelled 30 per cent of its internal flights and border police worked to rule, taking six minutes rather than an average of 14 seconds to check passports.

Paris was eerily quiet early on with train stations deserted and fleets of commuters taking to bikes and e-scooters. The Eiffel Tower and Orsay Museum were closed due to low staff numbers, as were several exhibition rooms at the Louvre and Pompidou Centre.


The empty Gare Du Nord in Paris, as tourists cancel travel plans and the authorities deploy thousands of police as France girds for massive, nationwide strikes and protestsCredit:
Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP

The interior ministry said 750,000 million French later marched in provincial towns and 65,000 in the capital against Mr Macron’s plan to create a “universal” points-based pension system. Unions put the overall figure at 1.5 million.

Mr Macron wants to do away with the current 42 “special” regimes in the public sector and other corporations that include various perks, including allowing some rail workers to retire in their early 50s at a cost to the tax payer of €8 billion per year.

The President remained “calm and determined to see this reform through while listening and consulting,” said his office.

“No union seriously thinks we will give up this reform,” said Gilles Le Gendre, parliamentary head of Mr Macron’s LREM party.

“We won’t give in because to do so would be to take much harder, more unfair and risky measures."

Security was tight with 6,000 police present in the French capital, amid fears that unions could lose control if the protests turned violent.

Officers used tear gas to disperse rioters who set fire to a vehicle and smashed windows shortly after the march began in Place de la République. Dozens were detained amid fears that “black bloc” anarchists would infiltrate the demonstration.

The Macron administration has been on tenterhooks ever since a "yellow vest" revolt erupted last November, prompting weekly running battles with police in major cities that rocked his rule. 

Gilets jaunes were indeed present in the march in Paris, which ended in the Place de la Nation but despite skirmishes with troublemakers, the procession was mainly peaceful as night fell.

The yellow vest presence was higher in the provinces, where they blocked roundabouts, roads and petrol depots. Police used tear gas to clear about 300 who had blockaded a roundabout in Rouen in Normandy.

There were tensions in Nantes, Lyon and Toulouse, where demonstrators clashed with police.

Mr Macron faces a further test on Saturday, when yellow vest protesters plan a fresh round of demonstrations that they hope will be joined by union activists.

Unions representing railway and transport workers and many others in the public sector have called for a general strikeCredit:

The Eiffel Tower and the Orsay museum were shut because of staff shortages, while the Louvre, the Pompidou Centre and other museums warned that some wings and exhibits were closed.

The CGT union said workers had blocked seven of the country’s eight oil refineries, raising the prospect of fuel shortages if the strike continues.

And "yellow vest" protesters, who have staged weekly demonstrations since last year demanding improved living standards, blocked roads in several cities including Le Havre on the Atlantic coast, where the heavily used port was also shut according to the CGT.

A man wearing a clown mask and waving a smoke bomb takes part in a demonstration to protest against the pension overhauls, in MarseilleCredit:

There were fears of fuel shortages after unionists blocked seven of France’s eight petrol refineries.

While police were by law barred from joining the strike, many of their unions were supportive of the movement and briefly blocked police stations.

Dustmen, lawyers, doctors, hospital workers, opera singers were among the other groups to take action in an attempt to prevent Mr Macron from scrapping their generous pension regimes.

Student unions also joined the movement while lorry drivers blocked many provincial roads.

Hundreds of thousands of mainly state sector workers downed tools to protest against planned changes to their generous pension regimesCredit:
Henry Samuel

In the Paris march,  Edith Bonnel, hospital psychologist, 39, said: “They want everyone to have the same type of pension but I think it is important to differentiate those who have ‘tough’ professions." 

Luc Angelini, 28, who works in publishing, said he was fighting against the prospect of “having to retire later for a full pension”. The official retirement age in France is currently 62 but it could in practice increase to 64 for full pension rights under the reform. 

His father was a metro driver who started working at 16 and retired at 50 in 2013 under his “special pension” regime.

“As a child I saw how hard it was to work weekends and nights. People entered such companies in the knowledge they could retire early and I don’t find it fair that is being taken away,” he told the Telegraph.

In what analysts said was a sign of how tense and fractious French society has become, the strikes are against a reform that will only be divulged in detail next week.

“We are beating ourselves up for something of which we don’t even know the contents,” said Laurent Berger, general secretary of the moderate CFDT union, which broadly supports the reform.

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