Strikes disrupted train services, flights, schools and businesses in France as well as unions on Thursday sparked huge protests against the government’s plans to raise the retirement age for most workers.
Protests in major French cities, including Paris, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes and Nice, halted transport on Thursday. The Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors and the country’s energy network was also under pressure.
Eight of the largest unions had called for a “first day of strikes and protests” against the pension reforms announced by President Emmanuel Macron’s government. The legislation requires French citizens to work until age 64, instead of 62 now, to qualify for a full state pension.
Philippe Martinez, secretary general of France’s largest trade union CGT, told journalists he expected the total number of protesters to exceed 1 million.
Train lines across France were “severely disrupted” according to the French rail authority SNCF. Metro lines in Paris were hit by full or partial closures, the city’s transport authority RATP said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Eurostar has canceled several services between the French capital and London, according to its website, and has scratched its flights at Paris’ Orly airport. Charles de Gaulle in Paris reported “a few delays” due to air traffic controllers striking, but no cancellations.
CGT, which has recorded more than 200 protest events across the country, said the majority of refinery workers at TotalEnergies (TOT) have walked out and interrupted deliveries of oil products. TotalEnergies (TOT) said fuel supplies at its gas station network would not be affected.
According to the French Ministry of Education, more than 40% of primary school teachers and more than a third of secondary school teachers are on strike.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told French radio station RTL on Wednesday that more than 10,000 police and military personnel will be deployed to the protests, including 3,500 officers stationed in Paris.
Macron’s proposed pension reforms come as workers in France, as elsewhere, come under pressure from rising food and energy bills. Nurses and ambulance drivers in the United Kingdom also went on strike on Thursday over pay and working conditions.
Thousands took part in mass demonstrations on the streets of Paris last year to protest the cost of living, and strikes by workers demanding higher wages caused fuel pumps across the country to run out a few months ago.
“This reform comes at a time when there is a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, a lot of fatigue. In fact, it comes at the worst time,” trade union leader François Hommeril of CFE-CGC told DailyExpertNews on Tuesday, pointing to the inflation that has plagued Europe this year following the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The French government has said raising the retirement age is necessary to address the pension funding gap. France spent nearly 14% of GDP on state pensions in 2018, which is more than most other countries, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Government spokesman Olivier Veran told journalists on Wednesday that 40% of French workers could retire before the age of 64 under the proposed regime because of exemptions for those who started work early or have physically demanding jobs.
“We have the most protective, the most developed system in Europe [for pensions],” he said. “Even after the reforms, we will retire better and earlier in France than in almost all eurozone countries,” he added.
In Europe and in many other developed economies, the vesting age of full pension benefits is 65 and is approaching 67.
Pension reforms have long been a contentious issue in France, with street protests halting reform efforts in 1995, and successive governments facing strong opposition to changes finally implemented in 2004, 2008 and 2010.
An earlier attempt by Macron to revamp France’s pension system was met with nationwide strikes in 2019 before being halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The French trade unions will meet on Thursday evening to decide whether to continue the strike.