Paris/London CNN —
Strikes disrupted train services, flights, schools and businesses in France as unions said Thursday led to massive protests against government plans to raise the retirement age for most workers.
Protests in major French cities including Paris, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes and Nice brought public transport to a standstill on Thursday. The Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors, and the country’s energy grid was also under pressure.
Eight of the largest unions had called for a “first day of strikes and protests” against the pension reforms presented by President Emmanuel Macron’s government. Legislation provides that French citizens must work until the age of 64 (up from the current 62) to be entitled to a full state pension.
Philippe Martinez, general secretary of France’s largest trade union, the CGT, told journalists he expected the total number of demonstrators to exceed 1 million.
According to the French railway authority SNCF, there were “serious disruptions” on train routes across France. Metro lines in Paris are affected by full or partial closures, the city’s transport authority RATP said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, Eurostar has canceled several services between the French capital and London, and flights at Paris’ Orly Airport have been scratched, according to its website. Charles de Gaulle in Paris reported “a few delays” due to striking air traffic controllers, but no cancellations.
CGT, which recorded more than 200 protests across the country, said the majority of refinery workers at TotalEnergies (TOT) have left, cutting off supplies of oil products. TotalEnergies (TOT) said fuel supply at its network of stations will not be affected.
According to the French Ministry of Education, more than 40% of primary school teachers and more than a third of high school teachers are on strike.
France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told French radio station RTL on Wednesday that over 10,000 police and military personnel are being deployed to the protests, including 3,500 officers stationed in Paris.
Macron’s proposed pension reforms come as workers in France, like elsewhere, come under pressure from rising food and energy bills. Nurses and ambulance drivers in the UK are also on strike Thursday over pay and working conditions.
Thousands took part in mass demonstrations on the streets of Paris last year to protest the cost of living, and strikes by workers demanding higher wages dried up fuel pumps across the country a few months ago.
“This reform comes at a moment when there is a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, a lot of weariness. It really comes at the worst moment,” CFE-CGC union leader François Hommeril told CNN on Tuesday, noting the inflation that has rocked Europe this year in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The French government has stated that raising the retirement age is necessary to fill a funding deficit in pensions. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, France spent almost 14% of GDP on state pensions in 2018, more than most other countries.
Government spokesman Olivier Veran told journalists on Wednesday that 40% of French workers will be able to retire before age 64 under the proposed rule, as there are exceptions for those who started work early or have physically demanding jobs.
“We have the most protective, most advanced system in Europe [for pensions],” he said. “Even after the reforms, we will retire better and earlier in France than in almost any eurozone country,” he added.
In Europe and many other developed economies, the age at which full pension rights vest is 65 and is increasingly approaching 67.
The overhaul of pensions has long been a controversial issue in France, with street protests halting reform efforts in 1995 and successive governments met with fierce opposition to changes eventually passed in 2004, 2008 and 2010.
An earlier attempt by Macron to overhaul France’s pension system was met with nationwide strikes in 2019 before being abandoned because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
French unions are due to meet on Thursday evening to decide whether to continue the strikes.