France: Unions Extend Strikes as 800,000 People March Against Pension Reforms (Minute by Minute Report)

Tens of thousands of French workers took to the streets on Thursday to protest at planned pension reforms causing severe transport disruption that is set to be extended into Friday.

Thursday’s summary

  • 11 Metro lines close as Paris public transport grinds to a halt
  • Only ten percent of trains operate around France as rail workers join walk-out
  • Hundreds of flights are cancelled to and from France
  • French unions justify crippling strikes saying it’s ‘the only way to make social progress’
  • Paris braced for major demonstration with 6,000 extra police drafted in
  • Strikes in France could last ‘until New Year’
  • Eurostar, ferry and international train routes also affected

19:00 – 800, 000 demonstrate across France

The Ministry of Interior in France said 800,000 people demonstrated across the country on Thursday, including 65,000 in Paris.

Two previous mass protests against pension reforms in France in 2010 drew well over one million marchers.

The CGT union said 1.5 million people hit the streets nationwide.

In the capital as well as in the southeastern city of Lyon and western city of Nantes police fired teargas to disperse small groups of rioters but protests were mainly peaceful.

Unions believe President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms will leave many worse off after retirement or force them to work longer. They are determined to carry on.

With the situation now mostly under control in Paris we have ended our live blog for the night.

But the strike will continue on Friday – CLICK HERE for more details on how transport will be hit on Friday.

And if you want to see some pics from the day you can click on this link.

Here are just a couple of tweets to highlight the situation in Paris as commuters face try to get home with little public transport. For some the strikes have meant a rare seat on the Metro and for others it means a long walk home.

And here’s a video put together by Alex Dunham that compares the scenes in Paris today to the last major transport strike in 1995.

 

Here’s part of the latest round up from AFP:

16:30 – Violence flares at Place de la République in Paris

Store windows were smashed and objects set ablaze near Place de la Republique in Paris on Thursday afternoon as trouble flared duyring the protest march against pensions.

Full story – Tear gas fired on Paris strike demo as rioters smash windows and set fires

Reports suggested a hardcore group of black-clad protesters formed among the marchers before setting objects in the street ablaze and smashing store windows.

Police responded by firing teargas into the crowds.

Images on social media showed the trouble breaking out. Police revealed that by 4.30 pm around 70 people had been arrested and 9,000 preventative stop and search checks had taken place.

16.00 – What will happen on Friday?

Although some unions have only signed up for a one-day strike others are in it for the long haul, while some others have said they will review how the first day went then make a decision.

Some teaching unions will go back and a many schools have told parents that they will be operating as normal on Friday (although others will have no afterschool care or canteens because auxiliary staff are striking).

Unions on Paris transport network RATP have confirmed they will be striking until Monday so services in Paris will again be severely limited.

Air traffic control and airline ground crews will stay out, so airlines have again been asked to reduce their flights over France by 20 percent on Friday. This means more cancellations and again affects all airlines that operate in, out or over France.

Rail unions will also stay out so the service on SNCF trains will be at roughly the same level as Thursday – 90 percent of trains cancelled. The strike involves signal workers so affects all trains going through France, including Eurostar and international operators like Thalys and Lyria.

15.45 – Turnout for the strikers

So how many people actually downed tools today? If France you don’t need to belong to a union to strike, and although public transport workers have to give their bosses 48 notice of their intention to strike, other workers do not.

Here are some early figures for strike levels;

Teachers – 51.1 percent of primary teachers and 42.3 percent of secondary school teachers were on strike

SNCF rail staff – 85.7 percent

Workers at electricity provider EDF – 43.9 percent

The big question for unions is how many people will stay out if the strike action continues into days or weeks. French workers do not get strike pay and lose what roughly works out at a day’s pay for every day they strike.

During long-running strikes unions often run cagnottes (collection pots) for donations from the public which are given to striking workers experiencing financial difficulties.

For more on how striking works in France see – Striking in France: What are the rules and do workers get paid?

15:25 – Paris march draws thousands of protesters (and 6,000 police)

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Among the marchers in Paris were two ‘yellow vests’ who had joined the protest.

Marijane told The Local: “We want to change the world – we’re tired of a small handful letting the little people die.

“We want revolution.”

On the subject of violence, they said: “Certainly there will be violence. There is a call from the Black Bloc, who come from all different countries. But we are the hostages because they are going to blame us.”
Laurence, 55, who works at the Pôle Emploi unemployment office said: “It’s always a good thing to revolt and be a player in the drama.

“Retirement, the nearer you get, the further away it gets. And especially for women. And with this reform, it will be even less favourable to women.”

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14:40: Tens of thousands of protesters on the streets across the country

French authorities say there were at least 180,000 thousand protesters out on the streets across France on Thursday to demonstrate their opposition against the government’s planned pension reforms.

That figure didn’t include those marching in Paris, Lyon and Marseille, France’s three biggest cities. The final figure for the number of marchers will be announced later on Thursday.

In all there were some 235 planned demos across France on Thursday.

There were 20.000 protesters in Montpellier, 19,000 in Nantes, 15.000 in Clermont-Ferrand, 10.500 in Tours et 10.000 in Rennes.

The biggest demo in Paris got underway at 2pm.

Most demonstrations took place in a calm atmosphere but there were reports of flare-ups in Rennes and Nantes. Images posted on social media showed police firing tear gas at protesters in the two western cities.

RELATED CONTENT: One Year of the Yellow Vests in France

The image below shows people taking part in a demonstration to protest against the pension overhauls in Montpellier.

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AFP

 

Images on social media later on Thursday showed clashed between police and protesters in the southern city.

This was the seen in the south western city of Perpignan.

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And in Marseille firefighters joined the protests.

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There were also clashes in Bordeaux.

 

13:45 – BREAKING NEWS – Paris transport unions to continue strike until Monday

Unions representing workers for the Paris transport authority announced on Thursday afternoon that they would continue their strike until Monday.

This was largely expected given what they had said in advance of the strike.

Unions voted on Thursday to prolong the strike action meaning transport in the French capital will be severely disrupted until Monday at least.

Nearly all the striking workers voted to remain off the job until Monday, Thierry Babec of UNSA union said, adding that the network would remain “at a virtual standstill” if the government did not abandon the reforms.

Laurent Djebali had warned in Le Parisien newspaper earlier this week that the most important day for them was not Thursday or Friday or even the weekend.

“The crucial day is Monday,” he said. “We are ready to carry on until Christmas.”

Unions and the government will be watching closely how well supported the strikes are on Monday compared to Thursday as this will give a sign as to how long they might go on for.

Paris transport bosses at RATP had already said that if the strike carried on the weekend of December 7th and 8th would be a ‘sacrifice weekend and they would concentrate their sparse resources on Monday.

Many Parisians have already opted to take Thursday and Friday as days off work, but on Monday the network could struggle to cope as everyone returns to work.

It is therefore likely that transport services in the capital over the weekend will be even more limited than those running on Thursday and Friday.

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AFP

13:30 ‘They are in a difficult situation’

If you thought that Parisians would be angry about the travel chaos caused by the strikes today then think again.

Many are sympathetic towards the strikers and support their battle against President Macron’s pension reforms, as our reporter Ingri Bergo found out when she talked to many.

They might change their minds however is the strike rumbles on until Christmas.

13.15 Paris tourist attractions forced to close

Several of Paris’ major tourist attractions have been forced to close due to staff shortages. Although museum and tourist centre staff are not striking, they do face transport difficulties in getting in to work.

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.

13.00 Protesters arrive for the Paris march

Protesters are arriving at Gare du Nord for the main march through Paris, which is due to start at 2pm.

12:50 – ‘Real test for Macron is on Monday’

Our columnist John Lichfield had this to say about today’s strike.

“Most French people seem to have shrugged their shoulders and offered themselves an extra holiday,” he said.

“Road traffic approaching Paris is well down on a normal day. Those Metro lines which are working are empty. It will be much the same tomorrow, which will become an unofficial “pont” or holiday bridge to the weekend..

“The real test for both Macron and the unions will come on Monday. Can the militant union federations keep the protests going for weeks as they did in 1995? The fact that more Metro lines than expected are open today suggest that anger levels are not as high as predicted. We will know early next week.”

To read more analysis from John Lichfield on the pension reforms CLICK HERE.

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AFP

12:45 – Police taking no chances in Paris

Police are out in force in Paris on Thursday and fear the protest March from Gare du Nord to Nation could be hijacked by a violent minority of extremists.

By midday they say had made over 3,000 precautionary checks on people and have made 18 arrests.

12:30 – Are the French always on strike?

Our video editor Alex Dunham has put together this two-minute video that explains the strike culture in France and looks at whether it’s really true that the French are always on strike. It’s well worth a watch.

 

 

12.20 – Road blockades worsen

Seven of France’s eight oil depots are now blocked by protesters, which will likely have a knock on effect at filling stations around the country. (CLICK HERE for interactive map to find out the latest on shortages around France).

The blockades started last week in a separate protest over fuel taxes, but today unions are joining blockades in the strike action.

Adrien Cornet of the CGT union who was at the blockade of the Grandpuits-Bailly-Carrois depot in the northern Seine-et-Marne département, told French media he would not be moving until Macron “throws his reform away”.

Across the country ‘yellow vests’ are also staging roundabout protests which are blocking roads in Rouen and the Manche and Bouches-du-Rhone départements. Marches in Calais have disrupted traffic and the port of Boulogne has been blocked to cars.

12pm – Protests get underway across France

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In total around France there are 245 registered protests today, including the above pictured one in Marseille as unions and striking workers gather to express their opposition to the government reforms.

There is a big protests planned for Paris – which police fear violence at from Black Bloc infiltrators – which is due to start at 2pm.

11.30 Calm and prepared mood in Paris

Our reporter Ingri Bergo, who is out and about in Paris, said: ” None of the Parisians I have spoken to so far seemed bothered about the strike, even if they didn’t support its aims.

“Everyone seems very prepared with a lot of people using bikes. The few people I’ve seen running around looking flustered had big suitcases and were probably tourists caught out by the strikes.”

She added: “There have been lots of RATP transport staff around as well to help people out, so I think that’s keeping people calm.”

In fact the biggest complaint heard so far on the streets has been about the freezing temperatures.

11.20 – Paris workers remain sympathetic to strikers

Despite the difficulties of their morning commute, many Paris workers said they sympathised with the aims of the strikers.

Workers in France enjoy strong social protection and many people are aware of the connection between a strong union movement and social rights for workers. Read here what the Paris commuters we spoke to this morning had to say on the subject.

A retired transport worker trying to make his way home to the Paris suburbs told us: “No social progress has ever been given for free. We need to respect the rights we have won in the past and not throw them away.”

11:00 You’d expect chaos but…

Many people are taking to Twitter to post pics of empty trains and Metro carriages.

While we might have expected scenes of commuters crushing to get on to available Metro services it’s actually been very calm.

And it was the same on the roads with authorities reporting half the usual amount of rush hour traffic jams around Paris this morning.

Workers appear to be either staying at home or peddling/scooting/walking to work.

10:50 – Shopkeepers and store owners suffer from loss of festive trade

“Obviously we’ll lose money,” said Azar Hagege, the owner of a small shoe shop called Djena, situated in what is usually a lively shopping street in the 2nd arrondissement, a little south of Strasbourg Saint Denis.

RELATED CONTENT: Bolivia, Laboratory of a New Destabilization Strategy

Saturday is the big day for shopkeepers like Hagege, who said he worries the transport networks remain paralysed over the weekend.

“We won’t have any customers in that case,” he said.

10:40 – Fuel depots blocked

Groups of ‘yellow vest’ protesters have blocked fuel depots in the Var department in the south and near the city of Orleans, it has been reported.

Other oil refineries have been hit by strike action. Blockades of fuel depots by construction workers in recent days has left petrol stations running out of fuel, particularly in the west.

Authorities blame drivers panic buying fuel in fear of ending up with an empty tank. On Thursday over 200 petrol stations had totally run out of fuel while over 400 were almost out of stock.

To find out where in France petrol stations are running low CLICK HERE.

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10:20 – ‘Opinion is split’

Our reporter Ingri Bergo (@IngriBergo) has been out on the streets of Paris talking to commuters.

She says: “Everyone I’m speaking is saying how Paris feels really empty today. Many people have clearly decided to stay at home. There are lot of people on bikes, scooters and walking but it feels calm. I was at Châtelet Metro station one of the busiest in Paris but it was fairly quiet at rush hour.

“As for what people think of the strikes, well opinion is divided. Some support it and some are very against it. One woman I spoke to who was riding a bike to work for the first time works in the private sector and is worried she will lose out on her pension of the reforms go through.”

Opinion polls have showed a majority of French people support the protest movement although the figures given in surveys vary from 58 percent to over 70 percent.

On the other hand 76 percent of respondents in an Ifop poll published on Sunday back the reform, 64 percent do not trust the government to pull it off.

10:00 – ‘Transport misery unlikely to improve on Friday’

France’s transport minister Elisabeth Borne (pictured below) said early on Thursday that the government believes there will be no improvement in terms of transport on Friday.

That means skeleton services on the Paris Metro and very few mainline trains.

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Thursday is just the first day of what is expected to be a long-running strike on trains and the Paris transport with unions vowing to continue their struggle until their demands are met.

But the government isn’t ready to back down says Borne.

“The government is determined to put into a place pension reforms but we are open to discussions about the timetable for change,” she said.

And she notes that the actual content of the reforms has not even been announced yet. The French PM is expected to announce his reform plans in the coming days.

9.50 – Blockades at Channel ferry port

In northern France local media are reporting several blockades on the roads, including one in which about 60 demonstrators are currently blocking access to the channel port of Boulogne.

Roads affected by either full blocks or operation escargot (rolling roadblocks) include the A26 and A11. Local paper La Voix du Nord is running its own live blog detailing up to the minute travel information in the north.

9.45 – Huge police presence in Paris today

Some 6,000 extra officers have been drafted in to police Paris on Thursday. A march will take place later this afternoon from Gare de l’Est to Place de la Nation. Police chiefs fear black bloc anarchists intent on violence will be among the marchers.

9.35 – Iron Lady closes for the day

The Eiffel Tower in Paris will remain closed on Thursday due to the strike after workers at the monument joined the movement. There is of course plenty of other disruption in Paris today. This link has all the information.

9.30 – Are Macron’s pension reforms really worth all this disruption?

If you’ve got time on your hands while waiting for a bus/train/tram to arrive, you might want to check out this piece by our columnist John Lichfield, in which he looks at exactly why President Emmanuel Macron’s ideas on pension reform have provoked such anger, and whether they are really worth all this disruption.

9.15 – Parisians takes to their bikes, scooters, skateboards and feet…

As public transport services are either not running or extremely crowded, many Parisians have taken to bikes, scooters or their feet to get to work.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has been doing a lot of work on making Paris a more cycle-friendly city and the network of new cycle paths will be getting a thorough testing today. Maybe some commuters will even be converted away from public transport for good?

Some Parisians are simply not used to cycling it seems, but they are being very stoic about it all

Hot tip from our (Norweigan) reporter in Paris – bring gloves. It’s very cold and rather misty out today

9.00 – What’s happening on the roads?

With public transport at a virtual standstill, driving is looking like the better option if you need to get around France today. However there are also a couple of things to be aware of here.

The first is that hundreds of petrol stations around the country are either closed or running short due to a separate dispute in which several oil depots have been blocked. If you’re driving today check out this interactive map of which filling stations are still open.

Also some hauliers unions, although not all, are joining the strike. When French hauliers they frequently stage road blocks. So far there have been no reports of this, but it would be wise to leave extra time for your journey.

And finally, ‘yellow vests’ have also said they will be staging protests in sympathy with the striking workers. The big trouble expected here is at a demonstration in Paris later today, but in the past motorway toll booths have been a favoured target for ‘yellow vests’ so we could be seeing some protests there around the country.

8.50 – Strikes ‘could last a week or a month’

The big question on everybody’s lips is how long this will last for? Some unions said they will strike today and then consider whether to prolong their action but others have already declared unlimited action and say they will not be going back until their demands are met.

One of the rail unions has said their members ‘expect to be eating Christmas cake together’ – ie still be on strike by Christmas – while a political analyst The Local spoke to said it could last until the New Year.

The last time the French government tried a major reform the the pensions system was in 1995. That lead to three weeks of strikes until the government caved.

8.45 – Are the French really always on strike?

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French workers do have a certain reputation for readiness to down tools, although the data would suggest they don’t do it quite as often as their reputation suggests.

This video looks at what is behind France’s image as the ‘strike capital of the world’ and whether it’s hurting their economy.

8.35 – Travel chaos across the country

It’s not just Paris that is affected by the strikes, public transport in most major cities, including Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille, Montpellier, Rennes and Nantes is affected, with most places running a skeleton service on buses or trams.

For more information, click here.

Mainline train services across the country are also badly hit with about 90 percent of trains cancelled, so getting around France today will be tricky.

Below is video from a largely deserted Bordeaux St Jean station from local newspaper Sud Ouest.

8.30 – What are they striking about?

If you’re wondering what this is all in aid of, it’s because millions of mostly public sector workers fear they will lose out under planned reforms to the French pension system.

We spoke to four of the biggest French unions and asked them how they could justify bringing the country to a virtual standstill.

One official told us “Margaret Thatcher broke the unions in the 1980s and who looks after the interests of the British workers now? No-one.”

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8.15 – Thousands of schools stay closed across France

It’s not just transport that has been affected by the huge public-sector strike with thousands of schools closed on Thursday as teachers join the protest against the pension reforms.

Around the country some 55 percent of teachers are on strike but that rises to 78 percent in Paris, which means over two thirds if the schools in the capital are completely closed.

That means parents who are struggling to get to work because of the transport strikes also face the added headache of finding childcare. This is when the grandparents come in handy.

Teachers fear they could be among the big losers of President Macron’s planned pension reforms, which are still under discussion.

8.00 – 11 Metro lines are closed

In Paris 11 of the city’s 16 Metro lines are closed altogether, three more are only running during rush hours and the two automated lines – Lines 1 and 14 – are running as normal, although they are expected to be extremely busy. Buses, trams and the RER are also running limited services and city transport operator RATP is concentrating its sparse resources on running rush hour services to get commuters in to work and back.

7.44 – Strikes at French docks affecting some ferries from UK

If you’re travelling to and from France today, you will need to be aware that flights, trains including the Eurostar and ferries are all affected by the strike action.

For more details – Flights, trains, ferries and buses: Your questions answered

7:30 – Paris gears up for rush hour… without most of its Metro

Commuters in Paris – and across France – are facing a difficult journey to work as city public transport services are badly disrupted. Some people have opted to work at home (le télétravail in French) and others have taken the day off, but plenty more are either using the scant services that are running or taking to travel alternatives like bikes, electric scooters or mopeds.

Thursday, December 5th marks the first day of ‘unlimited’ strike action declared by dozens of unions in a coordinated protest over government plans to reform the French pension system.

 

Featured image: Photo: AFP

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