Transport networks in Paris and cities across France ground to a near halt on Thursday as unions dug in for a protest, threatening to paralyze France for days while posing the severest challenge to Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. It was one of the biggest public sector strikes for decades aimed at forcing President Macron to abandon his pension reform plans.
Paris authorities barricaded the presidential palace and deployed 6,000 police as activists, many in yellow vests representing France’s year-old movement, gathered for a major march through the capital. Bracing for possible violence and damage along the route of the Paris march, police ordered all businesses, cafes and restaurants in the area to close. Authorities also issued a ban on protests on Champs-Elysees avenue, around the presidential palace, Parliament and Notre Dame Cathedral. Police carried out security checks of more than 3,000 people arriving for the protest and detained 18 even before it started. Embassies warned tourists to avoid the protest area.
Elsewhere around France, thousands of red-vested union activists marched through cities from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Lille in the north. French police fired tear gas at protesters in the western city of Nantes, the BFM news channel reported. Before the start of a rally in Nantes some protesters threw projectiles at police, who responded with tear gas and arrests.
The strike, which is open-ended and could last several days, has drawn comparisons with the showdown between government and unions over pensions in November through December 1995, which derailed an ambitious pension reform under then-President Jacques Chirac. The trade unions' influence has declined since then, and their efforts since Macron's election in 2017 to block his changes to the labor code and the status of railway workers both fell flat. However, they are hoping that the range of people affected by the planned pensions will make for a more powerful opposition movement this time. During the 2017 election, Macron promised to replace the country's complex system of pension schemes with one universal scheme. The new system would work on "a principle of equality: for every euro paid in, everyone will have the same right to a pension!" according to his manifesto. People paid little attention to this idea at the time, but when a government report set out initial proposals in July, that changed. The full details of the reforms have yet to be made clear, and the government is holding out the prospect of phasing them in so that people who are working now can keep their current rights.
The strikes are the latest in a long line of protests since Macron came to power in 2017. Most center on changes to the labor market, which Macron insisted during his election were necessary for France to become a more dynamic economy. The worry for Macron’s government is that the strikes could reignite the yellow vest protests, which erupted in November 2018 over anger about a fuel tax increase. The protests quickly turned into a broader movement for more economic and social justice and stood in opposition to Macron’s policies seen as favoring the rich. Macron was also accused of ignoring the day-to-day struggles of low-income earners in small-town and rural France. Macron had bowed to pressure from the street and agreed to a number of concessions aimed at appeasing protesters. However, he has failed to satisfy them with a mix of tax cuts and attempts to bridge the gap between the Paris elite and the rest of the country.
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