French police fire tear gas at strikers challenging Macron reform

‘Black bloc’ anti-capitalist protesters take part in a demonstration against the pension overhauls, in Paris, December 5, 2019 as part of a nationwide strike. — AFP pic
‘Black bloc’ anti-capitalist protesters take part in a demonstration against the pension overhauls, in Paris, December 5, 2019 as part of a nationwide strike. — AFP pic

PARIS, Dec 5 — Police fired tear gas at protesters in the centre of Paris today and public transport ground to a near halt in one of the biggest strikes in France for decades, aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned reform of pensions.

The strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who came to power in 2017 on a promise to open up France’s highly regulated economy, against powerful trade unions who say he is set on dismantling worker protections.

The outcome depends on who blinks first — the unions who risk losing public support if the disruption goes on for too long, or the government which fears voters could side with the unions and blame officials for the standoff.

“People can work around it today and tomorrow, but next week people may get annoyed,” said 56-year-old cafe owner Isabelle Guibal.

Rail workers voted to extend their strike through tomorrow, while labour unions at the Paris bus and metro operator RATP said their walkout would continue until Monday.

Macron wants to simplify France’s unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans, many with different retirement ages and benefits. Rail workers, mariners and Paris Opera House ballet dancers can retire up to a decade earlier than the average worker.

Macron says the system is unfair and too costly. He wants a single, points-based system under which for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights.

In Paris, many commuters dusted off bicycles, turned to carpooling apps or worked from home to avoid the crush on the limited train and metro services that operated in the morning rush hour.

Yesterday afternoon, thousands of strikers marched from the Paris’s Gare Du Nord through the centre of the city. Trouble broke out near the capital’s Place de la Republique, when some protesters set fire to a truck trailer. Police responded by firing tear gas, Reuters witnesses said.

President’s swagger

Macron has already survived one major challenge to his rule, from the grassroots “Yellow Vest” protesters who clashed with police and blocked roads around France for weeks on end earlier this year.

Having emerged from that crisis, he carries himself with a swagger on the world stage, publicly upbraiding US President Donald Trump this week over his approach to the Nato alliance and counter-terrorism.

But the pension reform — on which polls show French people are evenly split between supporters and opponents — is fraught with risk for him because it chips away at the social protections many French people believe are at the heart of their national identity.

“People are spoiling for a fight,” Christian Grolier, a senior official from the hard-left Force Ouvriere union which is helping organise the strike, told Reuters.

Airport workers, truck drivers and police are joining the strike at a time of widespread discontent towards Macron’s drive to make France’s economy more competitive and cut public spending. French law requires minimum public services are maintained during a strike.

The SNCF state railway said only one in 10 high-speed TGV trains would run and police reported power cables on the line linking Paris and the Riviera had been vandalised. The civil aviation authority asked airlines to cancel 20 per cent of flights because of knock-on effects from the strike.

Past attempts at pension reform have ended badly. Former president Jacques Chirac’s conservative government in 1995 caved into union demands after weeks of crippling protests.

The protests in Paris were mirrored, on a smaller scale, elsewhere in France. In the cities of Lyon and Marseille, thousands more protesters carried banners that read “Macron get lost” and “Don’t touch our pensions”. In Nantes, eastern France, police fired tear gas at protesters. — Reuters

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