Mass Strikes Upend France Over Pension Age Rise Push

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PARIS (AP) — Labor strikes upended travel in France on Thursday as French trade unions held their first mass demonstrations since President Emmanuel Macron inflamed public anger by forcing a higher retirement age through parliament without a vote.

Big crowds have started marching in the major cities of Marseille, Lyon, and Nantes as more than 250 protests were organized across France. The Paris march was scheduled to start at 2 p.m. from the Bastille plaza.

Protesters blockaded train stations, Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and refineries. High-speed and regional trains, the Paris metro and public transportation systems in other major cities were disrupted. About 30% of flights at Paris Orly Airport were canceled. The Eiffel Tower and the Versailles Palace were closed Thursday due to the strikes.

Protesters march during a rally in Nantes.
Protesters march during a rally in Nantes.

Thursday’s events were the ninth round of nationwide demonstrations and strikes called by France’s eight main unions since January. Violence has intensified in recent days at scattered protests against the pension reform and Macron’s leadership.

The French leader is stubbornly resisting the discontent on the streets, and said Wednesday that the government’s bill to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 must be implemented by the end of the year.

Critics attacked Macron for the statement, describing him as “self-satisfied,” “out of touch” and “offensive.” Violence has intensified in recent days at scattered protests against the pension reform and Macron’s leadership, although the mass demonstrations started off in an orderly way.

Protesters staged road blockades on major highways and interchanges to slow traffic around big cities. Train service was suspended in Marseille because protesters were stationed near the tracks.

A protester feeds a fire dring mass strikes in France.
A protester feeds a fire dring mass strikes in France.

FRED TANNEAU via Getty Images

At Paris’ Gare de Lyon train station, several hundred unionists and strikers walked on the railway tracks to prevent trains from moving, brandishing flares and chanting “and we will go, and we will go until withdrawal” and “Macron, go away.”

In Pantin, in the northern suburbs of Paris, several dozen union members blocked a bus depot.

Nadia Belhoum, a 48-year-old bus driver participating in the action, criticized Macron’s decision to force the higher retirement age through.

“The president of the Republic is supposed to … take into consideration the desires and needs of his people. He is not a king, and he should listen to his people,” she said.

The Education Ministry said in a statement that about 24% of teachers have walked off the job in primary and middle schools, and 15% in high schools.

The French government invoked a constitutional provision last week to get the pension bill adopted without the approval of lawmakers. The bill must now pass a review by France’s Constitutional Council before becoming law.

Macron’s government survived two no-confidence votes in the lower chamber of parliament on Monday.

The 45-year-old centrist president, who is in his second and final term, repeatedly said he was convinced that France’s retirement system needed to be modified to keep it financed. Opponents proposed other solutions, including higher taxes on the wealthy or companies, which Macron says would hurt the economy.

AP Journalist Nicolas Garriga in Paris contributed to the story.