Hundreds of thousands of French workers marched through Paris and other cities on the first day of an indefinite national strike on Thursday, disrupting transport and posing the biggest challenge to President Emmanuel Macron since the gilets jaunes demonstrations began a year ago.
The public sector walkout is likely to be the biggest in almost quarter of a century. It has been called by trade unions angry at sweeping pension reforms proposed by Mr Macron’s government that would eventually push back the retirement age for many workers.
Rail services have been curtailed across France along with Paris’s metro and bus networks. Most teachers are on strike, with health workers, firefighters and students joining marches to air a range of grievances over staffing, financing and work conditions.
“I will be on strike for a while,” said Emilien Paicheur, a 28-year-old maths teacher from Seine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris, and member of the Sud Education union, at a big trade union march starting outside the Gare du Nord in the capital.
The Paris march began peacefully but hundreds of so-called “black bloc” revolutionaries at the Place de la République later set fires and clashed with police, who responded with tear gas. Clashes were also reported in Nantes, western France, between riot police and masked protesters.
SNCF, the state rail group, said about one in 10 trains were running on suburban and high-speed lines, while international services such as Eurostar were also affected.
Flights are also being hit by industrial action at Air France and by some air traffic controllers. A total of 245 separate demonstrations have been announced across France.
“There is a sort of aggregation of discontent and a desire to signal dissatisfaction with the government,” said Nicolas Bouzou, economist at the Asterès consultancy, noting the French tradition to stage protests in the second half of an administration’s mandate.
Mr Macron, who swept aside the established parties of left and right when he and his liberal La République en Marche party took control of the Elysée palace and the National Assembly in 2017 elections, is at the halfway mark of his presidency.
“The president is following events closely, with calm and determination,” the Elysée palace said on Thursday as the demonstrators took to the streets. Olivier Dussopt, junior minister responsible for the public sector, said almost one-third of central government employees, including teachers, were on strike.
The cabinet under prime minister Edouard Philippe met again on Thursday after a special meeting on Sunday to discuss how to deal with the protests. Ministers fear a repeat of 1995, when Alain Juppé, Mr Philippe’s mentor, was forced to abandon a pension reform plan following weeks of industrial action and demonstrations during Jacques Chirac’s presidency.
The strike was called by the Communist-aligned CGT labour federation and other trade unions that said walkouts would continue until their demands were met.
It should become clearer by next week whether they are attracting mass support or whether they are likely to fizzle out.
While few private sector employees plan to strike, polls show widespread public concern and confusion about Mr Macron’s pension reforms and significant support for the first strike day on Thursday.
A YouGov poll for Huffpost published on Wednesday showed 60 per cent of respondents, including many of Mr Macron’s supporters, are in favour of the walkout, with 33 per cent opposed and 7 per cent without a view.
“There’s the pensions and then there’s all the rest,” said Christelle, a 37-year-old interior ministry civil servant who joined the main Paris march. “We can’t live on our salaries. The strike is indefinite.”
For many on the left, the strikes are the opportunity to unite their fragmented movement and make a mark on politics after years of declining influence. They found themselves sidelined by the gilets jaunes, who began by protesting against green fuel taxes and remained wary of established politicians and trade unionists.
Fabien Roussel, leader of the French Communist party, predicted a “very big mobilisation” of public sector workers on Thursday. “At least this government has succeeded in creating unanimous opposition to it from all the forces of the left and allowed us to come together. Thank you, Macron!”
Supporters of the now diminished gilets jaunes movement, including the “black bloc” revolutionaries, are planning a demonstration in Paris on Saturday.
Mr Macron and Mr Philippe have pledged to push ahead with their plan to abolish 42 special pension regimes — which grant privileges such as early retirement to railway workers and some others — and create a simplified single scheme.
The idea was in Mr Macron’s election manifesto, but he and his ministers are widely regarded as having done a poor job of explaining it to worried citizens. “Since no one knows what the reform is that’s being proposed, there’s anxiety all round,” said Rachida Dati, who is campaigning to be elected for the rightwing Les Républicains party as mayor of Paris.
The government said it remained open to negotiations on implementation of the reforms. Mr Bouzou, who called the presentation of the pension plan “catastrophic”, said Mr Macron would not want to lose support from centre-right voters by yielding to protesters as some of his predecessors had done.
“Macron’s advantage is to say, ‘I’ve done the reforms that others have not’,” he said. “His only protection is to enact the reforms.”
Although Mr Macron’s popularity has recovered to where it was before the gilets jaunes protests began, a majority of French voters still disapprove of his presidency.
Additional reporting by Reuters