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By Countercurrents Collective
A countrywide union strike against pension reform has brought transportation across France to a standstill. Thousands of workers marched in what has been described as the largest protest of its kind since 1995. The protest dwarfed the weekly Yellow Vests demonstrations that have been happening every Saturday for over a year now.
The massive worker walkouts and marches were called in the hope of forcing President Emmanuel Macron to abandon his plans to overhaul France’s pension system.
Police, lawyers, hospital and airport staff, and other professions for the general walkout joined teachers and transport workers.
In Paris, 11 of the city’s 16 metro lines were shuttered and schools in the capital and across the country closed down.
The strike, which is expected to continue until Monday, also paralyzed 90 percent of the country’s trains, and forced Air France to cancel 30 percent of its domestic flights.
1.5 million people join protests
The interior ministry said: More than 800,000 people had joined demonstrations in more than 100 cities across France.
The CGT union said: 1.5m people had turned out, including 250,000 in Paris.
Photographs of Thursday’s demonstrations show public workers carrying banners and flares as they march through France’s largest cities.
Riot police mobilized
In Paris, 6,000 riot police were mobilized as the capital braced for street protests.
Oil refineries blocked
The CGT also said workers had blocked seven of the country’s eight oil refineries, potentially causing fuel shortages if the strike continues.
Eiffel Tower did not open
The strike also forced France’s most iconic tourist spots to shut their doors. The Eiffel Tower and the Orsay museum did not open on Thursday due to staff shortages, while the Louvre, the Pompidou Centre and other museums said some of its exhibits would not be available for viewing. The Palace of Versailles was also shut for the day.
According to local media, Yellow Vest protesters were blocking fuel depots in the Var department in the south and near the city of Orleans.
Petrol stations out of fuel
As a result, on Thursday over 200 petrol stations had totally run out of fuel while over 400 were almost out of stock. The group has been demonstrating against Macron’s austerity measures for over a year.
Experts say that the strike, described as the largest of its kind in decades, could spell trouble for Macron. Building on ongoing demonstrations by the Yellow Vests, the strike could paralyze France and force Macron to rethink his planned reforms.
Demonstrators and police clash
Riot police and demonstrators have clashed in some cities amid the ongoing general strike by labor unions against proposed pension reforms.
Dozens have been arrested in Paris alone as over a million people marched across the country.
One report said: Police in Paris had arrested 71 people, officials said.
Footage from Paris shows protesters hurling objects at police, and riot-geared officers charging in response.
As flares light up the night, stun grenades can be heard exploding. There is also what appears to be tear gas.
Reports from across France during the day spoke of sporadic violence on the sidelines of the protests, including the smashing of shop windows and security cameras and setting fire to bicycles and effigies. Demonstrators blocked buses in Marseille.
Police fired tear gas in Nantes
Violence was reported in Nantes, Bordeaux and Rennes.
Police have fired tear gas at protesters in Nantes participating in a nationwide strike, according to local media.
Videos taken at the scene show demonstrators fleeing as large tear gas clouds obstruct the marchers’ path.
In one clip, shots can be heard coming from the police as demonstrators chant and jeer.
French BFM TV also reports that tear gas has been used to quell the rally.
Largest strike in years
A BBC report headlined “Macron pension reform: France paralyzed by biggest strike in years” said:
France’s largest nationwide strike in years has severely disrupted schools and transport.
“What we’ve got to do is shut the economy down,” said union official Christian Grolier of the Force Ouvrière (Workers’ Force). “People are spoiling for a fight.”
The BBC report told about the extent of affect of the strike on transport. It said:
- Some 90% of high-speed TGV and inter-city trains were cancelled
- In Paris, just five of the city’s 16 metro lines were running
- Train operators Eurostar and Thalys cancelled at least half their services linking Paris with London and Brussels. Eurostar will operate a reduced timetable until December 10
- Hundreds of flights were cancelled
- Air France cancelled 30% of internal flights and 10% of short-haul international flights amid walkouts by air traffic controllers
- Low-cost carrier EasyJet cancelled 223 domestic and short-haul international flights, and warned passengers to expect delays.
Sabotage by Extinction Rebellion
The Extinction Rebellion group said it had sabotaged thousands of e-scooters by painting over the QR codes that smartphone users scan to unlock the vehicles.
The group said this was because e-scooters – despite being widely viewed as an ecologically-friendly form of transport – actually required large quantities of energy and resources during their manufacture and had short life cycles.
How do French workers view the reforms?
The BBC report said:
Train driver Cyril Romero from Toulouse told France Info he would reconsider his job if the reforms went through.
“I started in 2001 with a contract that allowed me to leave at 50. But like everyone else, I got the reforms which pushed back my early retirement age to 52-and-a-half and then, in reality, 57-and-a-half for full pension. Now they want to make us work even longer.”
An unnamed history teacher, writing in HuffPost, was planning to strike on Friday as well as Thursday.
“For me, the pension reforms are one punch too many. We’re fighting not to lose hundreds of Euros of pension a month – after more than 40 years in a job.
“How can you even think of ending your career in front of pupils beyond the age of 70, in worsening conditions and on what for many of us is just a minimum wage?”
How much support is there for the strike?
The report said:
Some trade union leaders have vowed to strike until Macron abandons his campaign promise to overhaul the retirement system.
One opinion poll put public support for the strikes at 69%, with backing strongest among 18- to 34 year olds.
Single, points-based pension system
Macron has proposed making a single, points-based pension system, which he said would be fairer to workers while also saving the state money. The planned scheme would replace current system, which has 42 different pension schemes across its private and public sectors, with variations in retirement age and benefits.
The official retirement age in France has been raised in the last decade from 60 to 62, but remains one of the lowest among the OECD group of rich nations – in the UK, for example, the retirement age for state pensions is 66 and is due to rise to at least 67.
The move would remove the most advantageous pensions for a number of jobs ranging from sailors to lawyers and even opera workers.
Meanwhile, those retiring before 64 would receive a lower pension. For example, someone retiring at 63 would receive 5% less, so unions fear it will mean having to work longer for a lower pension.
Labor unions oppose the move, arguing that the changes would require millions of people to work beyond the legal retirement age of 62 in order to receive their full pension.
The unrest could signal dark days ahead for Emmanuel Macron’s pro-austerity government.
However, farmers, whose pensions are among the lowest in the country, are not taking part.
Since coming to power, Macron has pushed through other reforms including relaxing labor laws and cutting taxes for businesses.