France hit by severe disruptions amid mass strike, protests over pensions

Bracing for potential violence, the city’s police chief instructed all businesses, restaurants and cafes to close along the major march routes.

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By Saphora Smith, Nancy Ing and Associated Press

PARIS — Schools were shuttered, the Eiffel Tower was closed and commuters faced widespread disruptions across France on Thursday, as public and private sector workers took part in a mass strike in protest against the government’s plan to overhaul the pension system.

France is no stranger to industrial action but the nationwide walkout — dubbed “Black Thursday” by French media — amounts to one of the greatest challenges yet to President Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping societal reforms that many see as threatening the French way of life.

Railway stations were empty Thursday, with around 9 out of 10 high-speed trains canceled. Signs at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris showed “canceled” notices, as Air France called off about 30 percent of domestic flights.

In Paris, many subway stations were closed Thursday, prompting commuters to take to shared bikes and electric scooters, while others worked from home or looked after their children who were unable to attend school. Some 51 percent of primary school teachers and 42 percent of secondary school teachers went on strike across France on Thursday, according to the education ministry.

Videos of half-empty subways and commuter trains, as well as people beginning to take to the streets in major French cities including Marseille, Lyon and Nantes circulated on social media. In the capital, some 6,000 police were deployed for what is expected to be a major demonstration.

Bracing for potential violence and damage, the city’s police chief instructed all businesses, restaurants and cafes to close along the major march routes. Authorities also issued a ban on protests on the Champs-Elysees avenue, around the presidential palace, Parliament and the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Yellow vest activists plan to join unions at the protests in Paris and cities around the country to continue to amplify their call for greater economic justice. France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner warned Wednesday that vandals or so-called “casseurs” could infiltrate the protests and cause damage as they did in numerous yellow vest protests last year.

Philippe Martinez, secretary general of one of France’s most powerful union confederations, told French television network BFMTV that there were “never vandals or extremists” in the processions but that the unions were not responsible for what happened outside those processions.

Video circulated on social media of what appeared to be tear gas deployed at a crossroads in Lyon and makeshift barricades made of dumpsters set alight by protesters. But for the most part, the protests appeared to start off peacefully with video also circulating of other protesters in Lyon dancing to the music of a brass band. NBC News could not immediately verify the videos.

What are the pension reforms?

Macron wants to simplify the complex French pension regimes into one single points-based system so that all French workers have the same pension rights.

He says it will make the system fairer and is what’s needed to transform France so it can compete globally in the 21st century.

But unions argue it will require people to work longer, reduce pensions and undermine France’s social safety net.

There are currently dozens of different pension systems in which some professions have special privileges — air crews and rail workers for example are allowed early retirement while other professions, such as lawyers and doctors, pay less tax. The government has promised the legal retirement age of 62 won’t change and that some people with physically demanding jobs would be able to retire earlier, according to The Associated Press.

A protester holding an umbrella walks amongst smoke as French Labor unions members demonstrate against French government's pensions reform plans in Marseille on Friday. Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters

It was unclear Thursday how long the strike would last.

Unions have said it is an indefinite movement and hope to keep up the momentum in order to force the government to make concessions.

“It will be this war of attrition over the coming days and weeks to see whether or not the strikers or the unions will decide to go back to work before he needs to back down,” Joseph Downing, who focuses on French politics at the London School of Economics, said referring to Macron.

Downing said the strike is different from the yellow vest demonstrations because it is a single issue protest and people know what they are fighting for, meaning there is potential for it to last a long time.

However, he cautioned that Macron has won wars of attrition before.

“He’s weathered a few storms, it may be his biggest test but it’s not his first,” he added.

Saphora Smith reported from London. Nancy Ing from Paris.