Across France, hundreds of thousands protest pension reform on day one of strike

Protesters march in Paris on Thursday, December 5, 2019, to protest the government's pension reform plan.
Protesters march in Paris on Thursday, December 5, 2019, to protest the government's pension reform plan. Gonzalo Fuentes/REUTERS

A nationwide strike brought much of France to a halt on Thursday as unions kicked off a massive protest against a pension overhaul by President Emmanuel Macron, which they say will force millions of people to work longer or face curtailed benefits.


The French CGT union said 1.5 million people hit the streets nationwide in protest while the interior ministry put the number at 806,000.

The huge demonstrations across the country added to walkouts that paralysed transport services and closed schools, with international high-speed rail disrupted and flights cancelled. 

In the capital as well as in the southeastern city of Lyon and western city of Nantes police fired tear gas to disperse small groups of rioters but protests were mainly peaceful.

"We haven't seen such a turnout in a very long time," said Yves Veyrier, head of the Force Ouvriere union at the beginning of the Paris rally.

"We now expect the government to take the measure of this mobilisation, and understand that its universal system is a bad idea," he said.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe praised trade unions for keeping the protests on a tight rein, minimising the violence.


However, small groups of masked activists in the capital smashed store windows, set fires and hurled flares on the sidelines of a march that was otherwise peaceful.

Demonstrators also shot firecrackers at police in body armor, and some journalists were mugged in the street.

Paris police fired tear gas at demonstrators, and at least 90 people were arrested by evening as the protests wound down.

Union leaders vow to continue strike

Union leaders have vowed to keep up their protest unless Macron drops the pension overhaul, considered a centre piece of the president’s push to reform wide swathes of the French economy.

“This is going to concern everybody, not just part of the population,” said Franck, a 46-year-old worker at the automaker PSA, makers of Peugeot and Citroen vehicles, during a demonstration in Rennes, western France.

“Nobody can imagine having to work until you’re 70 years old,” he said.

Joseph Kakou, who works an overnight security shift in western Paris, walked an hour to get to his home on the eastern side of town.

“It doesn’t please us to walk. It doesn’t please us to have to strike,” he said. “But we are obliged to, because we can’t work until 90 years old.”

Officials have admitted that French workers will gradually have to work longer, but so far have given few details of how a “universal” system that does away with dozens of separate pension schemes will affect their retirement plans.

Paris metro on strike until Monday

The national railway company SNCF cancelled 90 percent of high-speed trains on Friday and warned of "very severe disruptions" for the Eurostar and Thalys trains serving London and Brussels.

Air France called off 30 percent of its domestic flights and 10 percent of its short-haul international routes.

Paris metro workers, meanwhile, voted to extend their industrial action, which shut down 11 out of 16 metro lines, until at least Monday.

On Thursday, traffic was lighter than usual in Paris as many people simply took the day off to avoid the travel chaos. 

“People made plans to deal with today and tomorrow, but I’m really worried about Monday, that’s when the hassle is going to start,” a customer service agent for the national railway company SNCF said at Montparnasse train station in Paris.

Tourist sites close, refineries blocked 

On Thursday, the Eiffel Tower and the Orsay museum were shut because of staff shortages, while the Louvre, the Pompidou Centre and other museums warned that some wings and exhibits were closed. 

The CGT union said workers had blocked seven of France’s eight oil refineries, raising the prospect of fuel shortages if the strike continues.

And “yellow vest” protesters, who have staged weekly demonstrations since last year demanding improved living standards, blocked roads in several cities including Le Havre on the Atlantic coast, where the heavily used port was also shut according to the CGT.

(France 24 with AFP and AP)

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