PARIS – Frustrated travellers ran into transportation mayhem across France for a second day on Friday, as unions dug in for what they hope is a protracted strike against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to redesign the national retirement system.
Most trains were shut down – including Paris subways – and traffic jams multiplied around the country.
The chaos did not dampen the defiant tone of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who plainly told the public:“You’re going to have to work longer.”
“We’re going to have to give up special pension plans,” he said in his first speech since the start of the nationwide strike that could further embolden protesters. Philippe did offer one olive branch, however, saying the reforms would be progressive so that they don’t become “brutal.”
Macron is determined to push through the changes to France’s convoluted and relatively generous retirement system, seeing them as central to his plan to transform the economy.
Opponents fear the changes to how and when workers can retire will threaten the hard-fought French way of life. They worry that the plan will force them to work longer and receive a lower pension.
The Versailles Palace remained shut for a second day by the strike, and the Louvre Museum warned visitors to expect delays and some closed galleries. The Eiffel Tower reopened after being closed all day on Thursday, but tourists remained challenged by strike-related disruptions.
“I arrived in Paris today, but I have been stuck for around two hours just trying to find a bus or a train,” said Zaeen Shoii of Pakistan while at the Gare de l’Est train station. “But everything has been delayed, so I’m just waiting for the next bus now.”
Unions hope the open-ended strike will keep pressure on the government through next week.
Emboldened by the biggest outpouring of public anger in years, unions announced plans for nationwide, “inter-generational” protests Tuesday over a reform they see as an attack on hard-won workers’ rights.
At least 800,000 people marched on Thursday as strikes closed schools, halted some public services and disrupted work at hospitals and refineries. Police fired repeated volleys of tear gas and protesters set fires on a rampage around eastern Paris.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said an internal police inquiry was launched after a video emerged showing officers beating a protester Thursday on the Boulevard de Magenta.
Most demonstrators were peaceful, however, and the violence by an extremist fringe didn’t deter unions from urging people across society to join the new protests next week.
Macron’s government has been negotiating with unions and others for months about the plan but won’t release the details of the changes until next week. The government says it won’t change the official retirement age of 62, but the plan is expected to encourage people to work longer.
The uncertainty about what the plan will entail is feeding public worry. Polls suggest most French support the strike and protest movement, at least for now, in hopes it will push the government to pay more heed to workers’ concerns.
Some seven in 10 French employees work in the private sector, and the strikes are primarily in the public sector. But the retirement changes will affect everyone, and Thursday’s demonstrations included private sector workers, too.
Paris region commuters and parents scrambling to get to work and school on Friday had mixed feelings about the strikes and the reform. Some decided to walk through a light drizzle, while others who live outside the city spent the night in hotels.
“I understand striking is a constitutional right, but there should at least be a partial (subway) service,” said Mira Ghaleni as she tried to get her son to school in eastern Paris. “It’s really a disaster for the people, and the politicians should do something because we’ve really had enough. One day, it’s OK, but I think it will last longer.”
Suburban commuter Eric Dao managed to get one of the few functioning regional trains into the city Friday, although he arrived late. “The strike is justified because it is necessary to find better social solutions,” he said.
For Spanish tourist Lidia Barquero, the strike encouraged her and her travelling companions to better appreciate Paris by foot. “We like walking,” she said.
Others opted for BlaBlaCar, Mobicoop and other ride-sharing companies that recorded a huge spike in business since the strike began.
BlaBlaCar CEO Nicolas Brusson said it has seen a surge in use of both their long- and short-disance services, telling The Associated Press some routes have tripled in popularity since Thursday such as Paris-Strasbourg. Brusson said car-sharing for his company in the capital increased tenfold. Mobicoop saw a 178% increase since Thursday.
Macron says the current system isn’t financially sustainable or fair, and he wants to unify France’s 42 different pension plans into a single one, giving all workers the same general rights. So-called special regimes, linked to certain professions like train drivers, allow workers to get early retirement or other benefits.
But the reform also aims to save money, and teachers are among those who worry it will leave them with less money at the end of their careers.
Teachers at the Balzac school, which educates hundreds of students from across Paris, said in a statement they were continuing to strike against a reform “that concerns all employees, in the public and the private sectors, and much later, our students.”
“Work counts and needs respect,” it said. “Retirement pensions should be an enduring and definitive sign of respect for the accomplishment of years of work, often laborious and annoying.”