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Photo of strikers in France holding torches and banners against a smoky background

What “Le Hell” is happening in France? Is the country shut for business this week?

PortandTerminal.com, December 6, 2019

France at standstill as workers strike over pensions reform. Unions in France extend strikes as 800,000 people march against the reforms

PARIS, FRANCE – The Ministry of Interior in France said 800,000 people demonstrated across the country on Thursday, including 65,000 in Paris in one of the biggest strikes in France for decades.

The country ground to a halt on Thursday as schools, railway stations and public buildings were shut on what has been dubbed “Black Thursday”. Air France cancelled 30 per cent of its internal flights and border police worked to rule, taking six minutes rather than an average of 14 seconds to check passports.

Rail operator SNCF said about 90% of its high-speed TGV trains were cancelled on Friday. Traffic jams of more than 350km (217 miles) were also reported on major roads in and around the capital on Friday morning. Some commuters took to bikes and electric scooters in an effort to avoid the transport chaos.

It was one of the most crippling strikes since 1995, when France was paralysed for three weeks.

The goal of the strikers is to force President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned reform of pensions.

The strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who came to power in 2017 on a promise to open up France’s highly regulated economy, against powerful trade unions who say he is set on dismantling worker protections.

The outcome depends on who blinks first – the unions who risk losing public support if the disruption goes on for too long, or the government which fears voters could side with the unions and blame officials for the standoff.

“People can work around it today and tomorrow, but next week people may get annoyed,” said 56-year-old cafe owner Isabelle Guibal.

Man wearing a winter jacket pushing a scooter along an empty train station in France

Rail workers voted to extend their strike through Friday, while labor unions at the Paris bus and metro operator RATP said their walkout would continue until Monday.

Trade unions achieved their initial objective on Thursday, as workers at transport enterprises, schools and hospitals across France joined the strike. In Paris, commuters had to dust off old bicycles, rely on carpooling apps, or just stay at home. The Eiffel Tower had to close to visitors.

On Thursday afternoon, tens of thousands of union members marched through the center of the capital in a show of force.

Trouble erupted away from the main protest when people in masks and dressed in black ransacked a bus stop near the Place de la Republique, ripped up street furniture, smashed shop windows and threw fireworks at police.

Police wearing riot gear spray protestors on a street in Paris with tear gas as journalists photograph the incident.
Police wearing riot gear spray protestors on a street in Paris with tear gas as journalists photograph the incident.

In images we are more recently used to seeing from Hong Kong, police in riot gear responded by firing tear gas, witnesses said. Nearby, police used truncheons to defend themselves from black-clad protesters who rushed at them. Prosecutors said, in all, 57 people were detained.

READ: Protests in Hong Kong are killing its economy – “No room for optimism”

Macron wants to simplify France’s unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans, many with different retirement ages and benefits. Rail workers, mariners and Paris Opera House ballet dancers can retire up to a decade earlier than the average worker.

Macron says the system is unfair and too costly. He wants a single, points-based system under which for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights.

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