Hundreds of thousands of people walked out of work and took to the streets of France on Thursday, in what is thought to be the biggest nationwide strike in nearly 25 years. Workers are protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to overhaul the pension system.
The nationwide strike led to mass demonstrations and protests turned violent in parts of the country. In Paris, protesters were seen smashing windows and CCTV cameras were set ablaze, with police firing tear gas into the crowd. There were similar scenes in Lyon and Nantes.
Workers are furious about the government’s planned pension reforms. The details of which will not be released until mid-December, but the plans are expected to only give workers full benefits if they retire after they turn 64. The official retirement age in France is currently 62, one of the lowest among OECD nations.
The strike started on Wednesday night when metro and rail workers walked out at around 20:00 local time. This forced 11 of the metro’s 16 lines to stop. The ones still running were operating intermittently, forcing commuters to get creative about how they got to work on Thursday morning.
Quentin Marignac, 26, works in advertising. He borrowed a scooter from a friend to get to work. “Usually, it takes me about half an hour, but it will probably take me an hour today, maybe more depending on the traffic outside Paris,” he said, before zipping off into traffic.
Things were easier for Marion Sabbatorsi. She takes one of Paris’s automatic metro lines to her catering job. “For me it was easy, but a lot of my co-workers and employees live far from our work. And some of them had to sleep at work,” she said.
Ride-hailing services were quick to react. Heetch passed out protest survival kits, along with discount vouchers for travelers. While, scooter companies such as Lime offered a free ride and 10 percent discounts.
The nationwide strikes also hit transport above ground. Hundreds of flights have been axed and nearly every train in and out of the country has been canceled. Even the iconic Eiffel Tower is closed. But, overall, the transportation chaos expected in the lead up to the strike was largely avoided on Thursday morning. The action was well broadcast far in advance and commuters made alternative plans, although things could get more complicated going forward.
The metro and rail unions said they will strike until at least Monday. Unions representing nurses, teachers, firefighters and airport employees haven’t given a deadline for their strike action.
This strike is widely seen as a showdown between power unions and President Macron, who wants to replace a sprawling system with a universal one. Right now, there are 42 different pension schemes across France, all with varying contributions and benefits.
President Macron wants to streamline the system and has proposed a universal, points-based pension scheme in which workers earn points towards future retirement benefits for each day worked. Macron said this will be far simpler and fairer, but unions fear they will end up working longer for less money.
“I want to show our government that a lot of people are against this reform,” said Thierry Kardos. “As a teacher in a public high school, I am one of those most impacted by this reform.”
Cindy Menzolla is concerned about a livable wages in retirement. “We cannot live with 400 euros [$444] or 800 euros of pension a month. We need a minimum standard of living, so I support the strike even if I have to walk of work today.”
Polling shows most French people support pension reform, they just don’t trust the government to oversee it.
“The idea of a universal system for everyone and a points system in itself isn’t a concern,” said Rémi Bourguignon, a professor of sociology at Université Paris Est-Créteil. “But people have a general feeling this reform is in fact a scam rather a reform. And that it will lead to their rights being reduced rather than a full transformation of the system.”
Many French governments have steered clear of pension reform. Three weeks of protests in 1995 forced the government to back down. But President Macron campaigned on a promise to transform France. Earlier this year, he successfully passed a labor reform bill and has emerged relatively unscathed from the Yellow Vest movement. Those protests have largely fizzled out, but the government is aware that the nationwide strike could reignite the violence.