Strikes Against Macron’s Pension Plans Shut Down Much of France – The New York Times
A sea of flags, shuttered shops, tear gas and deep discontent
A protest against changes to France’s pension system brought parts of the country to a grinding halt on Thursday, with nationwide strikes shutting down transportation and leaving schools and hospitals unstaffed and basic government services unmet.
Huge crowds of railway workers, teachers, students, hospital workers and other protesters peacefully marched down Paris’s wide boulevard Magenta, and amid blaring loudspeakers and occasional firecrackers, commuters struggled to find ways to get to work. Subways were largely shut, children left for school early and only about one in eight suburban trains were running in many areas, if they were running at all.
Though officials and protest organizers gave conflicting figures, the demonstrations were some of the largest in recent years.
The festive mood in Paris gave way to a more tense one as the day wore on, and sporadic violence broke out, especially near the Place de la République. Some violent protesters burned vehicles and threw projectiles at the police there, and officers fired tear gas and charged the group. There were also reports of isolated standoffs in other cities, including in Bordeaux, where security forces also fired tear gas.
Throughout the country, workers stayed home to register opposition to the proposed changes pushed by President Emmanuel Macron. The widespread participation in the strike suggested deep social discontent, creating a new test for the government after its largely successful efforts to tamp down last year’s “Yellow Vest” protests.
“They are changing the rules mid-game, said Christine D., a 52-year-old schoolteacher who was protesting and declined to give her last name. “They don’t communicate enough with the people.”
“He is completely out to lunch,” she added of Mr. Macron. One protest chant called for Mr. Macron’s early retirement later this month, when he turns 42.
The government deployed thousands of additional police officers in Paris alone to prepare for potential violence. Stores and banks were boarded up, especially along the route of the main demonstration in Paris, in anticipation of action by “casseurs,” or “breakers,” who have caused havoc in previous protests.
In Paris, the police announced that officers had carried out 9,350 “preventive checks” and 71 people had been arrested by 3:30 p.m. The checks were widely used by the police during the Yellow Vest rallies to keep those suspected of violent activism from reaching protest areas, a tactic that has also been criticized for infringing upon the right to demonstrate.
Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the General Confederation of Labour, one of the unions opposed to the pension plans, said his group would not back down until the overhaul was scrapped, calling instead for an improvement of the current system.
“Either you listen, or you continue to be stubborn the way the president has been since he was elected,” Mr. Martinez told reporters at the start of the Paris demonstration. “There is no reason to abandon a system that the whole world is envious of.”
Macron is said to be “calm and determined”
President Emmanuel Macron is “calm and determined” in the face of Thursday’s strike, though he is concerned about disruptions to daily life, a senior official at the Élysée Palace, the French presidency, told reporters at a news briefing.
Mr. Macron is “watchful that public order be respected, watchful as to the difficulties for French people, and watchful also that the right to strike is respected,” said the aide, who spoke anonymously in line with French government rules. But the aide underlined the president’s determination to see his pension overhaul through.
The aide was also at pains to dismiss the idea that Mr. Macron had cut himself off from ordinary citizens over the changes. The president has yet to make a comprehensive address explaining his ideas, and his critics say he is out of touch.
The government has also been sensitive to the notion that the pension overhaul is complicated and difficult to understand. Mr. Macron wants to get rid of France’s 42 different retirement schemes and replace them with one program managed by the state.
“No doubt the reform is complex,” the aide said. “But it’s a commitment he’s made.”
Why are people striking?
France has one of the world’s most generous pension systems, and past efforts to change it have long proven perilous in French politics. But President Emmanuel Macron is pushing ahead, hoping to streamline a byzantine system of 42 different pension plans that collectively are headed toward a $19 billion deficit.
Mr. Macron proposed merging the various plans, public and private, into one state-managed system, in which workers would accumulate points throughout their careers and then cash them in. He has promoted the idea as a fairer system, but some are concerned that they would be left with lower payouts.
One protester, Philippe Lauberthe, 47, who works at the railway company SNCF, said the proposed changes were “a race to the bottom for our pensions.” He said that a point-based system was risky for workers, since it was not clear how much points would be worth at retirement.
“Finance is governing,” said Ludovic Varlet, 52, a hospital worker from Dourdan at the Paris protest. “It was the best system in the world, and they are about to destroy it.”
But Mr. Macron’s government has tried to dispel any notion that 2019 will prove similar, noting that in 1995, the changes were not part of President Jacques Chirac’s electoral platform — unlike Mr. Macron’s — and that major unions and other groups had not been consulted.
This time, the government has been discussing the project with labor unions, though the groups have expressed frustration with the lack of specifics.
A battle over protest numbers
As often happens after major demonstrations in France, Thursday ended with a battle over attendance estimates.
The Interior Ministry said on Thursday evening that more than 800,000 people had demonstrated around France, whereas the CGT, the largest labor union opposed to the pension reforms, said the figure was 1.5 million.
In Paris, the police said 65,000 people had demonstrated, versus 250,000 for the CGT. After night had fallen, protesters were still filing into the Place de la Nation, the end point of the march.
Either way, that makes the demonstrations some of the largest in recent years.
The strikes will mostly continue on Friday and the following week, and some Yellow Vest protesters have called to demonstrate on Saturday. Most metro lines in Paris will remain closed on Friday, and 7 of 10 high-speed trains, as well as 7 of 10 express regional trains will be canceled across the country.
The strike has echoes of the Yellow Vest movement.
The protests have drawn comparisons with the Yellow Vest demonstrations of 2018 that ultimately forced Mr. Macron to make concessions over fuel prices and government subsidies.
The strikes are not directly tied to last year’s protests, which channeled deeper discontent with economic inequality into a movement that brought tens of thousands into the streets.
But many Yellow Vest activists have joined the new action, as have a wide spectrum of unions and political parties. Many of those marching in cities across France on Thursday wore the fluorescent vests now ubiquitous among the group.
Ingrid Levavasseur, a nurse and well-known Yellow Vest activist, said she hoped the general strike would bring momentum back to the movement.
“The government is still not listening to us, but they can’t go against the people’s opinion,” Ms. Levavasseur said from her home in Louviers, in northern France. “If the government keeps ignoring our demands, this will go much further than one day of protests.”
Confusion reigns for Paris commuters.
As thousands of protesters marched in eastern Paris, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe acknowledged that train traffic had been “very impacted” by the strike and that the government expected disruption again Friday.
Mr. Philippe told reporters that despite scattered violent faceoffs between “breakers who had not come to protest” and that “demonstrations went fine pretty much everywhere in France.”
But getting to work on Thursday morning was especially challenging for residents of Paris, where all but a few metro lines were completely shut down, and many buses remained idle in their depots.
At 9 a.m. at the Trocadéro station, the metro entrance was closed. Confusion reigned as commuters checked whether the No. 9 line was up and running. (It was, but only during rush hours, and only on a limited stretch that did not include that station.)
El-Kabir Abdoulhamid, 37, looked at the map on his smartphone and concluded: 25 minutes by foot. He had already taken a packed commuter train from the suburb of Evry, and his full journey would be at least 30 minutes longer than usual.
“But I support their right to strike,’’ said Mr. Abdoulhamid, who works in banking. “It’ll force employers to reflect.”
Not everyone is in favor of the strikes.
Châtelet, a major metro hub and station for regional trains, was empty by late morning, and virtually all the stores inside were closed. A screen displayed all lines to the outer suburbs of Paris as being on strike, as well as most Paris metro lines.
A scattering of security guards and cleaners working in the giant shopping mall Les Halles, which is connected to the station, said they had woken up earlier than usual to take trains in from the suburbs.
“I can’t afford not to work,” said one cleaner who would only give his first name, Manu, as he washed the floor in front of an empty escalator. He said he was employed on minimum wage for a cleaning company subcontracted by the mall. “I know people are striking over pensions, but it makes things a lot harder.”
The Gare de Lyon, a major hub in eastern Paris that has an elegant clock tower and from where trains leave for cities such as Lyon and Marseille, was nearly empty. One traveler, Alexandra, 28, who declined to give her last name, was trying not to fall asleep, bundled up in a scarf to ward off the biting cold. She said she was waiting for a train to visit family in Lyon, but it had been canceled, and she now had to wait several hours for the next one.
While she felt concerned by pension changes, she said, she disagreed with the strike.
“It’s inconvenient,” she said, adding that for tourists, like those on their way to see the famed festival of lights in Lyon, “It gives a bad image of France.”
But when people strike in France, Alexandra said, “they don’t do it halfway.”
Local businesses and tourism braced for a hit.
Along the normally bustling Rue St.-Denis in central Paris, almost every store was shuttered.
At one clinic, only a handful of patients and doctors milled about. Most doctors had canceled appointments for the next two days, and the waiting room was nearly empty.
Diego Piemental, 34, a manager at a nearby hair salon, gestured to his only client on Thursday afternoon. His bookings had fallen by more than half, he said.
“It’s close to a holiday, when business is normally up,” he said. “And if the shops remain closed, tourists won’t come here, so that will mean even fewer clients.”
With a large number of employees taking part in the protests, the Musée d’Orsay and the Eiffel Tower were also closed. The Louvre was open, though visitors were not able to see all of the collections, and the Palace of Versailles was recommending that visitors reschedule for a later date.
The Trocadéro Esplanade, which provides the best vantage point to photograph the tower, is normally packed with tourists, but on Thursday there were only a few.
“You can see for yourself, it’s empty,’’ said one annoyed vendor, one of only four selling plastic replicas of the tower and other trinkets.
“It’s noon — usually this place is packed with tourists,’’ said Zehar Chakri, 31, whose family owns a tourist kiosk, Souvenir de Paris, in front of the esplanade. “We haven’t sold anything today. I hope the strike doesn’t last beyond this weekend. December is usually our best month.’’
Deniz Uras, 27, a Paris-based Turkish guide, had brought two clients from Turkey to the esplanade. They had been forced to cancel plans to move on to Amsterdam.
“They’re stuck, and they don’t understand why,” Mr. Uras said. “I’ve been here for 10 years, so I know striking is in the French culture.’’
Officials in tourism and in some French cities have expressed worries about the effect of the general strike. Already, officials in Lyon and Strasbourg have reported widespread cancellations by nervous tourists.
Adam Nossiter, Liz Alderman, Norimitsu Onishi, Aurelien Breeden, Daphné Anglès, Elian Peltier, Elizabeth Paton, Daniel Victor and Michael Wolgelenter contributed reporting.
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