French government stands firm as new wave of pension strikes planned

The most serious nationwide strike to hit France in years caused new weekend travel turmoil on Saturday, with unions warning the walkouts would last well into next week.

French government stands firm as new wave of pension strikes planned

The challenge thrown to President Emmanuel Macron over his plans for radical pension reform has seen hundreds of thousands take to the streets and key transport services brought to a standstill.

The strikes, which began on Thursday, have recalled the winter of 1995, when three weeks of huge stoppages forced a social policy U-turn by the then-government.

‘The people around me don’t seem to really care’: The French defying Macron

Unions have vowed a second series of mass demonstrations nationwide on Tuesday after big rallies on Thursday and there is expected to be little easing of the transport freezes over the coming days. 

The strikes could prove to be the biggest domestic challenge yet for Macron, who came to power in 2017 on the back of promises to radically reform France and has sought a prominent place on the international stage as Europe’s number one statesman.

Macron was widely believed to have ridden out the challenge posed by the “yellow vests” whose weekly Saturday protests against inequality in France had shaken the government over the last year.

But the yellow vests have also sought to utilise the momentum of the strike movement and are expected to hold protests across France this Saturday.

Government stands firm

With Macron seeking for now to rise above the fray, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe insisted that the government would not abandon the plan even if it was prepared to bring it in more gradually.

He said the government would work with trade unions to introduce a single points-based pension scheme that would require the French to “work a bit longer” and replace dozens of more advantageous plans currently enjoyed by public-sector workers.

But the premier emphasised that the changes, which he said would be unveiled on Wednesday, were going to be introduced “progressively, without harshness”.

The SNCF rail operator has warned that disruption at the weekend will be at the same level as the last two days with just 10-15 percent of high-speed and regional trains running.

The Paris metro will remain severely disrupted with nine lines entirely shut, five only partially and just the driverless 1 and 14 lines working normally.

Many cancellations are also expected on the international Eurostar and Thalys services.

Air travel, which has been less impacted by the strikes, was returning closer to normal with air traffic restrictions now dropped by civil aviation authorities.

Museums, opera closed

Tourists in Paris may also face some disappointments: the world-famous Louvre Museum said it could open later Saturday with some rooms closed due to the strikes, while the landmark exhibition of painter El Greco at the Grand Palais was closed.

The Paris Opera has also cancelled its performances over the last days due to the strike. Businesses also feared that the lack of transport would affect shopping activity on a key weekend for the consumer economy just two weeks before Christmas.

The walkout is the latest test of Macron’s mettle after months of protests from teachers, hospital workers, police and firefighters, capping a year of social unrest triggered by the yellow vest movement.

Unions say Macron’s proposal for a single pension system would force millions of people in both the public and private sectors to work well beyond the official retirement age of 62.

At least 800,000 took part in rallies around the country on Thursday, according to the interior ministry — one of the biggest demonstrations of union strength in nearly a decade.

Another day of strikes and rallies has been called for Tuesday, a day after union leaders are to meet again with government officials over the pension reform.

While most of the rallies Thursday were peaceful, police fired tear gas to disperse dozens of black-clad protesters smashing windows and throwing stones during the Paris march, with one construction trailer set on fire.

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Clashes mar rally against far right in north-west France

Riot police clashed with demonstrators in the north-western French city of Rennes on Thursday in the latest rally against the rise of the far-right ahead of a national election this month.

Clashes mar rally against far right in north-west France

The rally ended after dozens of young demonstrators threw bottles and other projectiles at police, who responded with tear gas.

The regional prefecture said seven arrests were made among about 80 people who took positions in front of the march through the city centre.

The rally was called by unions opposed to Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party (RN), which is tipped to make major gains in France’s looming legislative elections. The first round of voting is on June 30.

“We express our absolute opposition to reactionary, racist and anti-Semitic ideas and to those who carry them. There is historically a blood division between them and us,” Fabrice Le Restif, regional head of the FO union, one of the organisers of the rally, told AFP.

Political tensions have been heightened by the rape of a 12-year-old Jewish girl in a Paris suburb, for which two 13-year-old boys have been charged. The RN has been among political parties to condemn the assault.

Several hundred people protested against anti-Semitism and ‘rape culture’ in Paris in the latest reaction.

Dominique Sopo, president of anti-racist group SOS Racisme, said it was “an anti-Semitic crime that chills our blood”.

Hundreds had already protested on Wednesday in Paris and Lyon amid widespread outrage over the assault.

The girl told police three boys aged between 12 and 13 approached her in a park near her home in the Paris suburb of Courbevoie on Saturday, police sources said.

She was dragged into a shed where the suspects beat and raped her, “while uttering death threats and anti-Semitic remarks”, one police source told AFP.

France has the largest Jewish community of any country outside Israel and the United States.

At Thursday’s protest, Arie Alimi, a lawyer known for tackling police brutality and vice-president of the French Human Rights League, said voters had to prevent the far-right from seizing power and “installing a racist, anti-Semitic and sexist policy”.

But he also said he was sad to hear, “anti-Semitic remarks from a part of those who say they are on the left”.

President Emmanuel Macron called the elections after the far-right thrashed his centrist alliance in European Union polls. The far-right and left-wing groups have accused each other of being anti-Semitic.