France brought to standstill by biggest strike in years

PARIS • Paris police used tear gas to disperse rioters who set fire to a vehicle, smashed windows and hurled projectiles at law enforcers during protests yesterday, as unions launched nationwide strikes over the government’s plan to overhaul the retirement system.

Tensions flared close to the Place de la Republique square in the east of Paris where thousands had massed, with protesters overturning a construction trailer and setting it on fire, sending a huge plume of smoke into the sky.

Skirmishes also broke out between police firing tear gas and protesters throwing flares at a protest in the western city of Nantes, and thousands of red-vested union activists marched through cities from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Lille in the north.

The Paris authorities barricaded the presidential palace and deployed 6,000 police as activists – many in yellow vests representing France’s year-old movement for economic justice – gathered in the capital in a mass outpouring of anger at President Emmanuel Macron and his centrepiece reform.

The Eiffel Tower was forced to shut down, while France’s vaunted high-speed trains stood still.

The Louvre Museum had warned of strike disruptions, and metro stations across Paris shut their gates.

Amid one of the biggest strikes in decades, unprepared tourists discovered train stations standing empty yesterday, with about nine out of 10 high-speed TGV trains cancelled. Signs at Paris’ Orly Airport showed “cancelled” notices, as the civil aviation authority announced that a fifth of flights were grounded.

Air France said it plans to operate all its long-haul flights today, as well as over 90 per cent of its medium-haul flights and almost 70 per cent of its domestic flights.

Lacking public transport, commuters used shared bicycles or electric scooters despite near-freezing temperatures. Public transport workers in Paris will remain on strike till next Monday, unions said.

Many workers in the Paris region worked from home or took a day off to stay in with their children, since 78 per cent of teachers in the capital were on strike.

Unions say it is an indefinite movement and hope to keep up the momentum at least for a week.

The mood was impassioned as a crowd massed on Boulevard Magenta in eastern Paris. Health workers showed up to decry conditions in hospitals. Students pointed to recent student suicides and demanded government action. And young and old roundly condemned the new retirement plan.

Public-sector workers fear Mr Macron’s reform will force them to work longer and shrink their pensions, and see this fight as crucial to saving France’s social safety net.

“The five weeks of paid vacation, the state healthcare system – we got all that through social struggles from people who sacrificed themselves financially for us to get that,” said rail worker Gilles Pierre, 41, taking part in yesterday’s march.

Mr Pierre, who according to the current system can retire at 52, admitted this is generous, but argued that it is fair compensation for the constraints that go with jobs like his, such as working on weekends.

To Mr 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.

After extensive meetings with workers, the high commissioner for pensions is expected to detail reform proposals next week, and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will release the government’s plan days after that.

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