Published: Thu, December 05, 2019

National strike against pension reform cripples services in France

National strike against pension reform cripples services in France

Mass strikes taking place across the whole of France against proposed pension reforms have severely impacted transportation services and brought Paris to a near standstill on Thursday.

More than 280,000 people demonstrated in about 40 cities -excluding Paris and Lyon, where estimates were not yet available - according to Le Parisien, which cites the AFP news agency.

Skirmishes broke out between police firing tear gas and protesters throwing flares at a protest in the western French city of Nantes, and thousands of red-vested union activists marched through cities from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Lille in the north.

Easyjet, British Airways and Ryanair have also opted to cancel many of their flights to and from France.

Before sunrise, riot police deployed along the boutique-lined Champs-Elysees boulevard, searching the bags of pedestrians ahead of a day of street protests which the government has warned may be infiltrated by violent groups.

The Eiffel Tower shut down, France's vaunted high-speed trains stood still and several thousand people protested in Paris as unions launched open-ended, nationwide strikes Thursday over the government's plan to overhaul the retirement system.

The demonstrations have also impacted key tourist attractions.

What to expect Thursday: Ambulance drivers, teachers, police unions, postal workers, hospital workers are expected to join the strike.

"People can work around it today and tomorrow, but next week people may get annoyed", said 56-year-old cafe owner Isabelle Guibal.

They are battling to remain relevant against a president who has faced down waves of strikes over reforms of the labour market and SNCF railways.

For Macron, this week's showdown with strikers will set the tone for the second half of his mandate, with more hard reforms to come, including to unemployment benefits.

What's driving concern? Many fear that under Macron's new universal retirement system, they will have to work longer for less, even though the official retirement age in France is 62 - one of the lowest among the 36 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

While many French voters agree that the pensions system should be changed, they are not sure the pro-business president can be trusted to do it.

But the pension reform - on which polls show French people are evenly split between supporters and opponents - is fraught with risk for him because it chips away at the social protections many French people believe are at the heart of their national identity.

Union-led demonstrations against the government's pension reforms got underway in cities across France on Thursday.

France is in the midst of an ongoing year-long protest by the so-called Yellow Vest demonstrators, which have at times become violent.

"We are here for our children", one officer said. "It doesn't please us to have to strike", he said.

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