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AFP
December 6, 2019

Strike snarls France as unions protest pension overhaul

World

AFP
December 6, 2019

PARIS: A nationwide strike brought much of France to a halt on Thursday as unions kicked off a massive protest against a pension overhaul by President Emmanuel Macron, which they say will force millions of people to work longer or face curtailed benefits. Most schools were closed or only assuring daycare services, forcing many parents to find alternatives or stay home from work as trains, metros and buses were cancelled.

Thousands of people marched in several cities ahead of two major demonstrations planned for Paris, where traffic was lighter than usual as many people simply took the day off to avoid the travel chaos. “People made plans to deal with today and tomorrow, but I´m really worried about Monday, that´s when the hassle is going to start,” a customer service agent for the national railway company SNCF said at Montparnasse train station in Paris. Union leaders have vowed to keep up their protest unless Macron drops the pension overhaul, considered a centre piece of the centrist president´s push to reform wide swathes of the French economy. “This is going to concern everybody, not just part of the population,” said Franck, a 46-year-old worker at the automaker PSA, makers of Peugeot and Citroen vehicles, during a demonstration in Rennes, western France. “Nobody can imagine having to work until you´re 70 years old,” he said. Officials have admitted that French workers will gradually have to work longer, but so far have given few details of how a “universal” system that does away with dozens of separate schemes will affect their retirement plans. Macron´s office said Thursday that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe would lay out the framework for the reform next week, after wrapping up negotiations with unions.

Around 90 percent of high-speed TGV trains as well as regional lines were cancelled, and Air France has axed 30 percent of domestic flights and 15 percent of short-haul international routes. In Paris, only a few of the 16 metro lines were operating, and service on the heavily used suburban rail lines crossing the city was severely disrupted. “I´m a witness for the wedding of my childhood friend, in Cologne [Germany] tomorrow afternoon, so obviously I can´t cancel my trip but this is making me really nervous,” said Nicole, who was waiting at the Gard du Nord station in the capital. The Eiffel Tower and the Orsay museum were shut because of staff shortages, while the Louvre, the Pompidou Centre and other museums warned that some wings and exhibits were closed. The CGT union said workers had blocked seven of the country´s eight oil refineries, raising the prospect of fuel shortages if the strike continues. And “yellow vest” protesters, who have staged weekly demonstrations since last year demanding improved living standards, blocked roads in several cities including Le Havre on the Atlantic coast, where the heavily used port was also shut according to the CGT. Police have said they are on alert for potential violence during the roughly 250 demonstrations expected across France from a radical fringe that could include the “black bloc” anti-capitalist protesters who infiltrated several “yellow vest” protests over the past year.