More travel chaos for French as strikes spread

PARIS • Strikes disrupted weekend travel in France yesterday as truckers blocked highways and most trains remained at a standstill because of worker anger at President Emmanuel Macron's policies.

Meanwhile, yellow vest protesters held their weekly demonstrations over economic injustice in Paris and other French cities, under the close watch of police. The marchers appear to be emboldened by the biggest national protests in years last Thursday that kicked off a drive against the government's plan to redesign the national retirement system.

As the strikes entered a third day yesterday, tourists and shoppers faced shuttered subway lines around Paris and near-empty train stations.

Other groups joined the fray, too.

Truckers striking over a fuel tax hike disrupted traffic on highways from Provence in the south-east to Normandy in the north-west. A similar fuel tax had unleashed the yellow vest movement a year ago, and this convergence of grievances could pose a major new threat to Mr Macron's presidency.

The travel chaos is not deterring the government so far, though. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe plainly told the French in a nationwide address on Friday: "You're going to have to work longer."

He will present details of the new retirement plan this week. The government says it will not raise the official retirement age of 62 but the plan is expected to include financial conditions to encourage people to work longer. Mr Philippe did offer one olive branch, saying the changes would be progressive so that they do not become "brutal".

Mr Macron says the reform, which will streamline a convoluted system of 42 special pension plans, will make the system fairer and financially sustainable. Unions, however, see the plan as a threat to hard-fought workers' rights, and are digging in for what they hope is a protracted strike. They also plan new nationwide retirement protests on Tuesday, despite the tear gas and rioting that marred the edges of the Paris march last Thursday.

In a society accustomed to strikes and workers rights, many people have supported the labour action, though that sentiment is likely to fade if the transport shutdown continues through this week.

 
 

"I knew it was going to last... but I did not expect it to be that chaotic," Ms Ley Basaki, who lives in the Paris suburb of Villemomble, said yesterday at the Gare de l'Est train station.

"There is absolutely nothing here, nothing, nothing. There is no bus, nothing."

Many travellers are using technology and social networks to find ways around the strike - working from home, using ride-sharing apps and riding shared bikes or electric scooters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 08, 2019, with the headline 'More travel chaos for French as strikes spread'. Print Edition | Subscribe