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French transit strikes close tourist sites, create traffic chaos for second day

Public sector workers continued their strike amid fears President Emmanuel Macron's changes will leave them with less retirement pay.

PARIS — Frustrated travelers faced transportation chaos around France for a second day Friday, as unions dug in for what they say will be a protracted strike against President Emmanuel Macron's plans to redesign the national retirement system.

Most French trains had ground to a halt, including Paris subways, and traffic jams multiplied around the country.

The Chateau of Versailles remained shut for a second day because of the nationwide strike, and the Louvre Museum warned visitors to expect delays and some closed galleries. The Eiffel Tower reopened Friday after an all-day closure Thursday, but tourists from around the world remained challenged by strike-related disruptions.

"I arrived in Paris today, but I have been stuck for around two hours just trying to find a bus or a train," Zaeen Shoii, a visitor from Pakistan, said while at the Gare de l'Est train station. "But everything has been delayed, so I'm just waiting for the next bus now."

Emboldened by the biggest outpouring of public anger in years, unions are holding meetings Friday to plan their next steps over changes they see as an attack on hard-won workers' rights.

At least 800,000 people marched nationwide Thursday, as strikes shuttered schools and some public services and disrupted hospitals and refineries. Police fired repeated volleys of tear gas and protesters set fires in Paris, but most demonstrators were peaceful.

Image: A man stands on a deserted platform at the Gare de Lyon train station, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019 in Paris.
A man stands on a deserted platform at the Gare de Lyon train station on Friday in Paris.Rafael Yaghobzadeh / AP

Macron is determined to push through the changes to France's convoluted and relatively generous retirement system, seeing them as central to his plans to transform the French economy.

Opponents fear the changes to how and when workers can retire will threaten the hard-fought French way of life, and worry that the plan will push them to work longer, for less retirement pay.

Macron's government has been negotiating with unions and others for months about the plan but won't release the details of the changes until next week. The government says it won't change the official retirement age of 62, but the plan is expected to encourage people to work longer.

The uncertainty about what the plan will entail is feeding public worry. Polls suggest most French people support the strike and protest movement, at least for now, in hopes it pushes the government to pay more heed to workers' worries.

Some 7 in 10 French employees work in the private sector, and the strikes are primarily in the public sector. But the retirement changes will affect everyone, and Thursday's demonstrations included private sector workers, too.

Commuters and parents struggling to get to work and schools Friday had mixed feelings about the strikes and the reform.

Image: A woman screams amidst clouds of tear gas as protesters and French Riot Police clash during a rally near Place de Republique on Dec. 5, 2019 in Paris, France.
A woman screams amidst clouds of tear gas as protesters and French Riot Police clash during a rally near Place de Republique on Thursday in Paris.Kiran Ridley / Getty Images

"I understand, striking is a constitutional right but there should at least be a partial (subway) service," said Mira Ghaleni as she tried to get her son to school in eastern Paris. "It’s really a disaster for the people, and the politicians should do something because we really had enough. One day, it’s OK, but I think it will last longer."

Unions declared an open-ended strike and hope to keep up pressure on the government through next week.

Macron's idea is to unify France's 42 different pension schemes into a single one, giving all workers the same general rights. So-called special regimes, linked to certain professions like train drivers, allow workers to get early retirement or other benefits.

But the changes also are aimed at saving money, and teachers are among many who worry it will leave them less money at the end of their careers.