Transport chaos in France as strike against pension reforms enters Day 2
Teachers, doctors, police, firefighters and civil servants join transport workers
France faced a second day of travel chaos and understaffed schools and hospitals on Friday as unions said there would be no let-up in a strike against Emmanuel Macron's pension reforms until the president backs down.
Much of France ground to a halt a day earlier as transport workers went on strike — joined by teachers, doctors, police, firefighters and civil servants. Smoke and tear gas swirled through the streets of Paris and Nantes as protests turned violent.
The strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who took office in 2017 on a promise of opening up France's highly regulated economy, against powerful unions, which say he is set on dismantling worker protections.
There were cancellations of rush-hour trains into Paris on Friday and 10 out of 16 metro lines were closed while others ran limited services.
As commuters took to their cars, traffic jams totalling 350 kilometres clogged the roads in and around the capital, according to traffic app Styadin.
Rail workers extended their strike through Friday, while unions at the Paris bus and metro operator RATP said their walkout would continue until Monday.
"We're going to protest for a week at least, and at the end of that week it's the government that's going to back down," said Paris transport employee Patrick Dos Santos, 50.
Who blinks first?
The main trade unions were to meet on Friday morning to decide the next course of action.
The outcome depends on who blinks first — the unions that risk losing public support if the disruption goes on for too long, or the president whose 2½ years in office have been rocked by waves of social unrest.
Pension fight: What are the dividing lines?
- French President Emmanuel Macron wants to unify the country's 42 pension schemes into one system, arguing the current setup is unfair, too expensive and too complex. Full details are expected next week.
- The current retirement age is 62. The government says it doesn't plan a change, but one proposal would require working until 64 for maximum pension benefits. (The move to 62 is fairly recent, up from 60.)
- Unions negotiating with the government worry workers would lose money under a new system. Some sectors are concerned they'll lose early retirement options.
- Why does the government feel change is needed? A recent report suggested that if no changes are made, the pension system in France would have a deficit of more than €17 billion (around $24.8 billion Cdn) by 2025.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said deep reform was needed to put the generous pension system on a sustainable footing. Fewer teachers were expected to strike on Friday, he said.
"It would be much easier for us to do nothing, like others before us," Blanquer told BFM TV. "We could see through this five-year term without enacting deep reform. But if every presidency reasons in this way, our children will not have an acceptable pension system."
Eiffel Tower closed
The industrial action on Thursday brought tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets in Paris, and forced the closure of the Eiffel Tower and parts of the Louvre Museum.
Union leaders were buoyed by the number of health-care staff, railway workers and teachers who heeded the strike call, and the numbers who showed up at an anti-government march in Paris and other French cities.
"There's a noise in the streets, I hope the windows of the Élysée are open," said Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the CGT union, referring to the president's office.
Macron wants to simplify the unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans. Rail workers and mariners can for instance retire up to a decade earlier than the average worker.
The French will have to work longer, the president insists, but appears reluctant to simply raise the retirement age of 62. One alternative is to curb benefits for those who stop working before 64 and give a benefits boost to those who leave later.
How the strike is impacting public services
- Trains and subways: Nearly a third of all workers, including 87 per cent of train drivers, were on strike on Friday. State-run SNCF has cancelled 90 per cent of high-speed TGV trains, while three in 10 trains on regional routes will run, with other services replaced by buses. There were major disruptions on the Paris metro and suburban lines.
- Air travel: Air France cancelling 30 per cent of domestic flights and 10 per cent of medium haul operations because of strike action by air traffic controllers that the airline said would run until Saturday.
- Schools: Education Ministry said five per cent of teachers were on strike Friday, compared to more than half Thursday.
- Police: Two police unions called on members to keep striking and provide minimum public service required by French law.
- Energy sector: Part of the workforce at five refineries is on strike, the CGT union said, adding production wasn't impacted, but deliveries were. Members could be asked whether to halt production at a vote Monday, the union added. Energy Ministry said the country's fuel supplies were good.
With files from The Associated Press and CBC News