×

French workers walk out

Planned pension reform draws nationwide ire

PARIS — Paris police fired tear gas at demonstrators Thursday as the Eiffel Tower shut down, France’s high-speed trains came to a standstill and hundreds of thousands marched nationwide in a strike over the government’s plan to overhaul the retirement system.

Police said 65,000 people took to the streets of the French capital, and over 800,000 nationwide in often-tense demonstrations aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to abandon pension reform.

The open-ended walkout by the country’s unions represents the biggest challenge to Macron since the yellow vest movement against economic inequality erupted a year ago.

Opponents fear the changes to how and when workers can retire will threaten the hard-fought French way of life. Macron himself remained “calm and determined” to push it through, according to a top presidential official.

In Paris, small groups of masked activists smashed store windows, set fires and hurled flares on the sidelines of a march that was otherwise peaceful. Demonstrators also shot firecrackers at police in body armor.

The Louvre closed some of its galleries, and the Palace of Versailles shut down. Subway stations across Paris closed their gates, high-speed TGV trains canceled their runs, and nearly 20% of flights at Paris’ Orly Airport were reported grounded.

Some travelers showed support for the striking workers. Others complained about being embroiled in someone else’s fight.

“I had no idea about the strike happening, and I was waiting for two hours in the airport for the train to arrive, and it didn’t arrive,” said vacationer Ian Crossen, from New York. “I feel a little bit frustrated. And I’ve spent a lot of money. I’ve spent money I didn’t need to, apparently.”

Beneath the Eiffel Tower, tourists from Thailand, Canada and Spain echoed those sentiments.

And young and old roundly condemned the new retirement plan, which they fear would take money out of their pockets and reduce the leisure period the French have come to expect in the last decades of their lives.

Joseph Kakou, who works an overnight security shift in western Paris, walked an hour to get to his home on the eastern side of town.

“It doesn’t please us to walk. It doesn’t please us to have to strike,” he said. “But we are obliged to, because we can’t work until 90 years old.”

The deeply unpopular Macron is expected to reveal the details of his plan next week. The government has promised not to touch the official retirement age — 62, though lower for certain physically demanding occupations — but the plan will encourage some people to work longer.