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Wednesday 22 January 2020

Pension strike brings travel chaos for second day in France

Government plans to redesign the national retirement system are opposed by unions.

Empty platforms at the Gare de Lyon train station (Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP)
Empty platforms at the Gare de Lyon train station (Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP)

By Angela Charlton, Associated Press

Travellers have suffered disruption across France for a second day as unions dig in for what they hope is a protracted strike against government plans to redesign the national retirement system.

Most French trains were at a halt, including Paris subways, and traffic jams multiplied around the country.

The chaos did not dampen the defiant tone of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who plainly told the public: “You’re going to have to work longer.”

“We’re going to have to give up special pension plans,” he said in his first speech since the start of the nationwide strike that could further embolden protesters.

Mr Philippe did offer one olive branch, however, saying the reforms would be progressive so that they do not become “brutal”.

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Railway employees in red jackets give information to travellers at the Gare de Lyon station (Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP)

President Emmanuel Macron is determined to push through the changes to France’s retirement system, seeing them as central to his plan to transform the economy.

Opponents fear the changes to how and when workers can retire will threaten the hard-fought French way of life.

They worry that the plan will force them to work longer and receive a lower pension.

The Versailles Palace remained shut for a second day by the strike, and the Louvre Museum warned visitors to expect delays and some closed galleries.

The Eiffel Tower reopened after being closed all day on Thursday, but tourists remained challenged by strike-related disruptions.

“I arrived in Paris today, but I have been stuck for around two hours just trying to find a bus or a train,” said Zaeen Shoii of Pakistan while at the Gare de l’Est train station.

“But everything has been delayed, so I’m just waiting for the next bus now.”

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Travellers are meeting transportation chaos around France for a second day (Bob Edme/AP)

Unions hope the open-ended strike will keep pressure on the government through next week.

Emboldened by the biggest outpouring of public anger in years, unions announced plans for nationwide, “inter-generational” protests on Tuesday over a reform they see as an attack on hard-won workers’ rights.

At least 800,000 people marched on Thursday as strikes closed schools, halted some public services and disrupted work at hospitals and refineries. Police fired repeated volleys of tear gas and protesters set fires on a rampage around eastern Paris.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said an internal police inquiry was launched after a video emerged showing officers beating a protester on Thursday on the Boulevard de Magenta.

Most demonstrators were peaceful, however, and the violence by an extremist fringe did not deter unions from urging people across society to join the new protests next week.

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People attend a demonstration in Paris on Thursday (Thibault Camus/AP)

Mr Macron’s government has been negotiating with unions and others for months about the plan but will not release the details of the changes until next week.

The government says it will not change the official retirement age of 62, but the plan is expected to encourage people to work longer.

The uncertainty about what the plan will entail is feeding public worry.

Polls suggest most French support the strike and protest movement, at least for now, in hopes it will push the government to pay more heed to workers’ concerns.

PA Media

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