France strikes: Unions protesting pension reform disrupt transport, shutter schools and force Eiffel Tower to close
Crippling strikes began in France on Thursday in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to overhaul the retirement system.
Transport unions led the protests and were joined by air traffic controllers, teachers and health workers.
As a result, 90 percent of high-speed TGV trains did not run. The Eurostar train service — connecting Paris, London, Brussels and Amsterdam — announced significant cancellations. Air France and British budget airline easyJet said they were axing flights.
Meanwhile, many schools were closed, and hospitals were left understaffed.
In Paris, many daily activities ground to a halt. Eleven of 16 Metro lines were shut down, leaving stations eerily vacant. The capital’s most notable landmark, the Eiffel Tower, was closed.
Thursday’s demonstrations saw a turnout of 800,000 demonstrators across France, according to the official government count. Organizers contested the official numbers, saying they counted 250,000 protesters in Paris, whereas the government calculated 65,000 in the capital.
Either way, the action was far bigger than any of the “yellow vest” protests of the past year, which peaked at 282,000 nationally.
But it also wasn’t the historic mobilization many commentators had predicted. The attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, for instance, had more than a million people in the streets of Paris alone in January 2015.
Thursday’s showing also did not quite live up to the crowds or vitriol of 1995, when the French government last attempted similar pension changes. At that time, millions took the streets in weeks of protests that shut down the country and forced then-President Jacques Chirac to backtrack in what became a withering political defeat.
It’s harder now to create as big a disturbance, even if social media makes it easier to mobilize. Employees can telecommute, at least for a while, and many French workers did just that on Thursday.
But few can predict how long these strikes will last or what they will yield.
The protests remain a potential political liability for Macron, a president who has dared to question some of the most generous aspects of a welfare state often seen as the model of the form.
A spokesman for the Elysee Palace said Thursday that Macron was closely following the situation “with calm and determination.”
His retirement system changes were part of his campaign pitch in 2017, an election he won in a landslide — albeit against the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. And for the moment, he shows no signs of backing down.
But neither do the protesters.
“There is noise in the street. I hope the windows of the Elysee are open!” Philippe Martinez, the secretary general of France’s General Confederation of Labor, a major trade union, said in reference to the president’s official residence.
Martinez said his members were waiting on the second act of Macron’s five-year term. “We are listening and no longer pretending that nothing is happening in this country, that there is no anger,” he said.
Unions largely stayed out of the yellow-vest demonstrations against social inequality that stunned France last year. But the two groups share the sentiment that Macron has given short shrift to French workers. And while the yellow-vest demonstrations have largely faded, the emotion behind them could easily be co-opted.
Many yellow-vest protesters were present in Thursday’s Paris march, which extended from the Gare du Nord train station in the north of the city to the Place de la Nation in the east.
“It’s been a year since the [yellow vests] have been protesting the policies of this government,” said Helga Coutelier, 47, an artist. “We will let nothing go when it comes to the rights of workers. Today, living on retirement pensions is already a struggle, and what they’ve announced is to make them even less.”
Macron’s aim is to standardize France’s 42 retirement schemes into a single points-based system that would calculate pensions for all employees in the same way. Some of the existing schemes, such as those for Paris Metro conductors, allow certain workers to retire as young as age 52 and to receive monthly pensions of about $4,100.
Macron’s critics, notably in the unions, insist that a single system would unfairly target the least fortunate, penalizing people for periods of unemployment in a country where such rates remain relatively high — 8.7 percent in the first quarter of 2019, according to Insee, France’s national statistics agency.
Certain sectors also oppose Macron’s one-size-fits-all approach to retirement plans because in their eyes, different career paths operate on different time scales and thus require special consideration.
Matthias Bergmann, 57, is the union representative of the Paris Opera. He was in the crowd in the Place de la Republique with a group of opera singers, dancers and employees.
“We are one of the oldest retirement systems in France. It was put in place by Louis XIV for dancers,” he said. “But we have a peculiarity. Our dancers can retire at 42 on a small pension, which then allows them to become a professor or to work in some other capacity.”
But Macron’s reforms would mean that Opera dancers would be required to retire at a later age, after most are physically capable of performing. “There is a lot of excellence at the Opera that would be completely destroyed by all this,” he said.
Not all the protesters were as conversant in the details. “Honestly, I haven’t really looked at it, but from what I understand it’s not good for us,” said Tom Bougat, 35, an employee with France’s national rail service, the SNCF, who lives in the Paris suburbs with his wife and two children. “I don’t want to spend my whole life working only to die while working.”
Although there were few incidents of vandalism and destruction, the Paris protest was relatively calm, especially in comparison with the sometimes violent yellow-vest demonstrations that ransacked the Arc de Triomphe, one of France’s most cherished national landmarks, last fall.
Even the French government praised the trade unions for a violence-free day. “The demonstrations went well more or less everywhere in France, and it’s important to underscore that,” Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said Thursday afternoon. “On the whole, these strikes and protests happened according to what had been announced,” he said. “They were well organized.”
Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, France’s state secretary for transportation, took a conciliatory tone Thursday. He said the government had been in discussions with union leaders for months and was ready to find a compromise on how the new policy would be implemented, even if the essence of the reforms would not change.
Élisabeth Borne, France’s ecology minister, whose department is responsible for transportation services, said any “significant improvement” toward getting services running normally again Friday was unlikely.
“I imagine the movement will continue,” Djebbari told reporters, adding that he hoped for a “rapid end to the conflict.”