France’s high-speed trains stood still Thursday, schools across the country shut down and the Eiffel Tower warned visitors to stay away as unions held nationwide strikes and protests over the government’s plan to overhaul the retirement system.
Paris deployed 6,000 police for what’s expected to be a major demonstration through the capital, an outpouring of anger at President Emmanuel Macron for a reform seen as threatening the hard-fought French way of life.
The Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum warned of strike disruptions, and Paris hotels struggled to fill rooms. Many visitors - including the US energy secretary - canceled plans to travel to one of the world’s most-visited countries amid the strike.
Subway stations across Paris were shuttered, complicating traffic - and prompting many commuters to use shared bikes or electric scooters instead. Many workers in the Paris region worked from home or took a day off to stay with their children, since 78 percent of teachers in the capital were on strike.
Historic train stations stood empty, with about nine out of 10 of high-speed trains canceled. Signs at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport showed “canceled” notices, as Air France called off about 30 percent of domestic flights.
Bracing for possible violence and damage along the route of the Paris march, police ordered all businesses, cafes and restaurants in the area to close. Authorities also issued a ban on protests on the Champs-Elysees Avenue, around the presidential palace, parliament and Notre Dame Cathedral.
Yellow vest activists plan to join unions at the protests in Paris and cities around the country, pressing their campaign for more economic justice.
Public sector workers fear President Emmanuel Macron’s reform will force them to work longer and shrink their pensions. And they see this fight as crucial to saving France’s social safety net.
“The five weeks of paid vacation, the state health care system - we got all that through social struggles from people who sacrificed themselves financially for us to get that,” said rail worker Gilles Pierre, taking part in Thursday’s march.
Pierre, who is 41 and according to the current system can retire at 52, acknowledges that the current system is generous, but argues that it’s fair compensation for the constraints that go with their jobs, like working on weekends and holidays.
“What do we want for our retirement years? To enjoy it or being a retiree in a hospital or in a bed and not being able to enjoy life?”
To Macron, the retirement reform is central to his plan to transform France so it can compete globally in the 21st century. The government argues France’s 42 retirement systems need streamlining, and the transportation minister said he will meet with unions Thursday to try to defuse tensions.
The big question is how long the strike will last. Unions say it’s an indefinite movement and hope to keep up momentum at least for a week, in hopes of forcing the government to make concessions.