France’s public transport networks have ground to a near halt as unions dug in for a nationwide strike aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to abandon plans to overhaul the country’s Byzantine pension system.
Railway and metro stations in Paris were largely deserted on Thursday during the early rush hour as commuters dusted off old bicycles, turned to carpooling, or worked from home.
The Eiffel Tower also warned visitors to stay away as Paris deployed 6,000 police for a major demonstration through the capital.
Workers argue that the proposed reforms will make them work longer for smaller pensions.
“Public transport will be very difficult today, as it will be tomorrow and probably this weekend too,” junior transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told RTL radio.
The countrywide walkout by public workers is one of the biggest strikes in decades.
Left-wing unions want to cripple transport networks, close schools and leave rubbish piled high to force Macron into retreat.
The SNCF state railway says only one in 10 commuter and high-speed TGV trains will run. Train operators Eurostar and Thalys have cancelled at least half their services linking Paris with London and Brussels. The civil aviation authority asked airlines to cancel about 20 percent of flights because of knock-on effects from the strike.
More than half of all primary and secondary teachers are expected to walk out and hospital emergency rooms nationwide will be thinly staffed. Transport unions have set no end date for the strike.
“What we’ve got to do is shut the economy down,” Christian Grolier, a senior official from the Force Ouvriere union, told Reuters news agency. “People are spoiling for a fight.”
Protesters will march from the capital’s Gare du Nord to Place de la Nation. The government has warned that rallies may be infiltrated by violent groups.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said thousands of anarchist “black bloc” and hardcore “yellow vest” protesters were expected to wreak havoc. He ordered shops along the route to close.
Rallies are also taking place in other French cities, including Marseille.
Macron’s pension plans
Macron says he wants to simplify France’s pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans with different retirement ages and benefits, claiming the system is unfair and too costly.
He wants a single, points-based system under which, for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights.
Past attempts at pension reform have ended badly. In 1995, former president Jacques Chirac’s conservative government caved in to union demands after weeks of crippling protests.
Twenty-four years later, the looming standoff is a risky venture for France’s hard-left unions who have seen membership and public support wane in recent years.
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, the showdown will set the tone for the second half of his mandate, with more difficult reforms to come, including to unemployment benefits.
The strikes follow months of sometimes violent “yellow vest” protests over the high cost of living and the perceived elitism of the political class.
Laurent Berger, head of the reform-minded CFDT union, said the social environment today is more explosive than in 1995.