Sunday 26 January 2020

Strikers cut power as thousands flood onto French streets

Street battle: Riot police and protesters clash in the city of Nantes yesterday during nationwide strikes. Photo: Getty Images
Street battle: Riot police and protesters clash in the city of Nantes yesterday during nationwide strikes. Photo: Getty Images

Henry Samuel

Hundreds of thousands joined a final national protest yesterday before Christmas against pension reform in France as President Emmanuel Macron's government pledged "total determination" to see the overhaul through.

Electricity workers caused chaos by cutting power to almost 100,000 homes overnight in Bordeaux and Lyon as part of the protest, warning bigger power cuts could follow.

The hardline CGT union said workers "only targeted public buildings and big business".

For the first time since 2010, all of France's unions marched together in the third day of national protests in a crippling two-week campaign that has punished commuters and businesses.

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However, in a boost for the French president, they failed to reach the hoped-for million mark, with police putting the numbers at 615,000 nationwide - lower than the 800,000 estimated for the first march on December 5.

The Eiffel Tower was closed and police were on high alert to avert looting and the setting on fire of cars and buildings. Officers fired tear gas and stun grenades in clashes with "black bloc" anarchists in the Place de la Nation, but other marches were peaceful.

The government is adamant it will push through a "universal" points-based system and end the current patchwork of 42 "special regimes" that offer early retirement to many in the public sector.

As red flares raged in Paris, rail workers, teachers, civil servants, lawyers and hospital workers chanted songs including: "We're here whether you like it or not, Macron."

Pierre Lespagnol (68), a retired rail worker with the hardline Sud union, said: "We have nothing to say about this reform apart from it must be scrapped. It's a change towards a neoliberal society that doesn't interest us. France is one of the last countries with a pension system of solidarity. Macron is playing Thatcher and it won't wash."

Hardline unions, notably the CGT, want the reform shelved and the current system - in which taxpayers pay €8bn annually to prop up loss-making regimes that allow some to retire in their mid-50s - to be "improved".

The moderate CFDT union, France's largest, backs the reform but wants the Macron government to drop a move to create a "pivot age" that would effectively raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2027.

The government says the new system will be fairer and improve pensions for women and low earners in particular.

Addressing parliament, Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, said there would be no climbdown despite CGT threats to paralyse transport over the Christmas period. He is due to meet union leaders today in a bid to break the deadlock before Christmas.

Despite high levels of striking drivers, national rail operator SNCF pledged that all passengers who had booked tickets on the country's fast TGV trains would reach their destination over the weekend as the holiday period begins.

With the battle for public opinion raging, 62pc of respondents to a poll for the RTL radio said they supported the strike but 69pc said they wanted a "Christmas truce". (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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