Strikes, protests as French unions seek momentum to halt pension reform

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Railway workers listen to speeches at a general assembly to vote for the strike's extension, next to the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris, on Dec 16, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PARIS (REUTERS) - French trade unions crippled transport, shut schools and brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets on Tuesday (Dec 17) in a redoubled effort to force President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned pension reform by Christmas.

Unions had called the mobilisation hoping to regain momentum after one of the biggest waves of strikes and protests in decades had started to tail off in recent days.

While it was too early to say whether they would match the 800,000 demonstrators brought into the streets two weeks ago, the strike appeared to have been observed on a similar scale.

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades at demonstrators in central Paris's Place de la Nation.

Protesters dressed in black, some with scarves and masks, overturned bins, tried to smash advertising hoardings and hurled projectiles at police lines.

Paris police said the clashes involved "black block" anarchists, a small minority of the otherwise peaceful protesters.

In Paris, shops were shuttered along the protest route. Riot police lined both sides of the central Boulevard Beaumarchais and had erected a barricades across the traffic circle in Bastille Square. A water cannon truck was parked nearby.

"We want social justice," said Veronique Ragot, 55, a striking sub-editor at a publishing house. "We've seen our social benefits melt in the sun, and this is the last straw."

A broadcaster showed clouds of what its reporter described as tear gas fired on protesters in the western city of Nantes.

Former investment banker Macron aims to streamline the Byzantine state pension system and prod people to work until 64, instead of the average retirement age now of 62.

The strike forced most long distance trains, commuter trains and Paris metro lines to shut. Even the Eiffel Tower was closed.

Many state schools were shut or had reduced lessons. Grid operator RTE blamed the strike for power outages in Lyon.

In the morning, roads were thick with pedestrians, bicycles and electric scooters as people headed to work.

Official figures suggested the number of railway workers participating in the strike had gone up, although the number of teachers had gone down.

The unions and Macron are each hoping to push the other to back down before Christmas, with the prospect that strikes over the holiday would alienate an increasingly frustrated public.


"Democratic and union opposition to our project is perfectly legitimate. But we have stated clearly what our project was, and my government is totally determined to reform the pensions system and to balance the pension system's budget," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told parliament.

Opponents of the pension reform were buoyed by the departure of government pension reform tsar Jean-Paul Delevoye, who quit on Monday over his failure to declare other jobs.

French workers receive among the world's most generous state pensions through a system divided into dozens of separate schemes. Macron's government argues that privileges for various categories of workers make it unfair, and wants a "points" system to treat contributions from all workers equally. Unions argue this amounts to an attack on hard-earned benefits.

"When all the unions say 'We do not want this reform', the government should have a rethink," said Philippe Martinez, head of France's CGT union, leading a column of demonstrators in Paris's Republic Square.

"They need to open their eyes and unblock their ears."

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