By Stefan J. Bos
Thousands of strikers braved near-freezing temperatures in Paris Thursday to express protest proposed pension reforms. Those marching people are angry that President Emmanuel Macron wants to end a system comprising dozens of different pension schemes.
President Macron says creating a unified system would be fairer. His new plan aims to reward employees for each day worked, awarding points that would later be transferred into future pension benefits. That could also include raising pension ages.
The official retirement age already rose in the last decade from 60 to 62. But it remains one of the lowest among the OECD group of wealthy nations.
These public sector workers oppose those plans. While they march through the streets of the French capital, the famed Eiffel Tower shut down. France's high-speed trains stood still. And most teachers walked off the job as unions launched nationwide strikes over the government's plan to overhaul the retirement system.
Paris authorities have barricaded the presidential palace and deployed 6,000 police. They want to prevent clashes with activists – many in yellow vests representing France's year-old movement for economic justice.
Organizers hope for a mass outpouring of anger at President Macron for his centerpiece reform. They view the pension plans as another threat to their hard-fought French way of life after several other social and economic changes.
Shortly before Thursday's strike, French firefighters occupied parts of the Place de la Republique to demand recognition, safer work circumstances, and more staff. "Many people are passing by, including many citizens and officials, but to be honest, we have not seen any government member give us a Christmas gift," said protester Manu Coullet. "But the population is here, and that is a great feeling," he added.
Tourists who were unaware of Thursday's strikes have been missing flights or trains. Hotels struggle to fill rooms as many canceled plans to visit France, including including the U.S. energy secretary.
Subway stations across Paris were shut down. That is complicating traffic prompting many commuters to use shared bikes or electric scooters despite near-freezing temperatures.
Many stay home
Many workers in the Paris region worked from home or took a day off to stay with their children since some 80 percent of teachers in the capital were on strike.
Questions remain how long the strikes will last. Authorities have warned the travel troubles could be just as bad Friday.
Unions say it's an open-ended movement and hope to keep up the momentum at least for a week, in hopes of forcing the government to make concessions.
But top presidential officials say President Macron himself remains "calm and determined" to push through his plans.