Protests reignite in France as unions seek support to quash pension reform

French labour union members and workers on strike attend a demonstration in Paris as France faces its 13th day of consecutive strikes against French government's pensions reform plans, December 17, 2019. REUTERS/Jean-Michel Belot

French trade unions crippled transport, shut schools and brought demonstrators into the streets on Tuesday in a redoubled effort to force President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned pension reform by Christmas.

Unions called the nationwide mobilization hoping for a new jolt to regain momentum, after a nationwide movement of rolling strikes and protests had started to tail off in recent days.

Former investment banker Macron has said he wants to streamline the Byzantine state pension system and prod people to work until 64, instead of the average retirement age now of 62.

Only a quarter of long-distance inter-city trains were running and even the Eiffel Tower was shut. Many state schools were shut or had reduced lessons. Grid operator RTE blamed the strike for power outages in Lyon.

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Eight of Paris‘s 14 metro lines were closed and most suburban commuter trains canceled. Roads were thick with pedestrians and streets crammed with bicycles and electric scooters as people headed to work.

Official figures suggested the strike was on a similar scale to the first major mobilization on Dec. 5, with slightly more railway workers and slightly fewer teachers participating.

Union transport workers chanted “All together, all together, yes, yes!” as they gathered in central Paris.

In anticipation of the planned protest march, some cafes and businesses pulled down their shutters on the Boulevard du Temple in central Paris, but far from all. During previous marches by unions, anarchists clad in black and wearing ski-masks had vandalized bus shelters and thrown paving stones at police.

Click to play video: 'France’s public transport faces mass disruption as unions launch strike against Macron’s pension reforms'
France’s public transport faces mass disruption as unions launch strike against Macron’s pension reforms

The unions and Macron are each hoping to push the other to back down before Christmas, with the prospect that strikes over the holiday would alienate an increasingly frustrated public.

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“It wasn’t me that started the pension reform, but I feel like I’ve been taken hostage. It’s frustration turning to annoyance,” said Johan Boyet, caught in the morning commute on Paris‘s central Boulevard Haussmann.

The state railway operator, SNCF, urged travelers not to show up at stations hoping to travel.

“Passengers are tired, our employees who aren’t striking are tired,” the head of SNCF in the Paris region, Alain Krakovitch told BFM TV. “My responsibility is to spread the word to avoid putting passengers in an unsafe situation.”


Opponents of the pension reform were buoyed by the departure of government pension reform tsar Jean-Paul Delevoye, who quit on Monday over his failure to declare other jobs.

French workers receive among the world’s most generous pensions through a system divided into dozens of separate schemes. Macron’s government argues that privileges for different categories of workers make it unfair, and wants a “points” system to treat contributions from all workers equally. Unions argue this amounts to an attack on hard-earned benefits.

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“When all the unions say ‘We do not want this reform’, the government should have a rethink,” said Philippe Martinez, head of France’s CGT union, heading a column of demonstrators in Paris‘s Republic Square. “They need to open their eyes and unblock their ears.”

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Numbers turning out for protests had waned since the start of the standoff but unions forecast a big turnout on Tuesday, with all the major unions taking joining one demonstration.

The unions are seeking to make a major show of force now, because as Christmas approaches, the risk increases that the strikes could backfire. A survey by pollster Ifop published on Monday in the Figaro newspaper showed 55% of people believed it was unacceptable for strikes to continue over the holiday.

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