(TMU) — France has been paralyzed as over a million workers have staged walkouts and mass rallies in the country in protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed reforms that would see huge portions of the country’s workers face retirement later in life as well as reduced pensions.
The streets of Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, and dozens of other cities ground to a halt Thursday as over 30 workers’ unions from a wide range of professions—including rail operators, air-traffic controllers, schoolteachers, and public sector workers—held the largest nationwide strike in decades.
The strike is already the largest in years, and by far the greatest mobilization against the center-right President Macron. Comparisons are being drawn to the major protests of 1995, which were sparked by similar attempts to dismantle social protections and retirement laws by former Prime Minister Alain Juppé.
In comments to the BBC, union official Christian Grolier of the major labor confederation Force Ouvrière (Workers’ Force) signaled the combative nature of the strike. He said:
“What we’ve got to do is shut the economy down. People are spoiling for a fight.”
Protesters are outraged by Macron’s attempts to replace France’s pension system with a universal points-based system that they argue would only benefit the country’s large corporations and employers while harming the interests of labor. Many workers would see their retirement delayed by several years or their pensions vastly reduced under the proposed reforms.
Un parcours de 7km déjà atteint par le début du cortège alors que le #vieuxport etait encore noir de monde. Manif HISTORIQUE à #Marseille au minimum 95 000 personnes. #GreveGenerale #grevedu5decembre #greve #blocage #giletsjaunes #giletsjaune #retraites pic.twitter.com/JdLPtdEefn
— Mojitobatbat (@mojitobatbat) December 5, 2019
Cyril Romero, a train driver from Toulouse, said that he would consider a change in career if the reforms succeed. He said:
“I started in 2001 with a contract that allowed me to leave at 50. But like everyone else, I got the reforms which pushed back my early retirement age to 52-and-a-half and then, in reality, 57-and-a-half for full pension. Now they want to make us work even longer.”
Since coming to power, Macron has tried to advance a pro-business agenda, slashing taxes for business and undoing labor protections through various attempted reforms.
French political scientist Dominique Moïsi told the Washington Post that the strike could unravel Macron’s presidential career. He said:
“It’s the coalition of all frustrations, and it demonstrates the isolation of the elite, the isolation of the president, even the personal rejection of Macron.”
"#Macron dice di venire a prenderlo;lo prenderemo all’Eliseo"
— Alessandro 7 (@AlessandroCere7) December 4, 2019
While the country’s interior ministry claims that 800,000 workers are involved in the strike, the powerful Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT, General Confederation of Labor) union said that 1.5 million people are participating. The massive trade union center also confirmed that workers were blocking seven of eight of the country’s oil refineries, which could lead to fuel shortages if the workers’ demands aren’t met soon.
At least 90 percent of regional trains were cancelled, with 82 percent of drivers on strike in what could become an open-ended work stoppage, the Guardian reported. Major tourist sites such as the Eiffel Tower and Palace of Versailles were shut down while the city’s busiest streets were emptied as commuters either participated in the strike or avoided travel altogether.
A large number of protesters from the “Gilets Jaunes”—or Yellow Vest—movement are also supporting the massive, coordinated workers’ actions, according to the BBC. The Yellow Vests froze the country in massive protests since late 2018 that began over a sharp rise in diesel fuel taxes before turning into a broader protest against Macron’s neoliberal economic policies and the general high cost of living in France.
Police and protesters clashed in various cities while in Bordeaux, state security forces deployed tear gas against the around 20,000 workers gathered at the Place des Quinconces, reports 20 Minutes. 71 protesters were arrested in Paris.
— mibosredon (@mibosredon) December 5, 2019
In the meantime, environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion sabotaged thousands of e-scooters by defacing the QR codes that are used to unlock them. The group argued that this is because of the huge amount of energy required to power the vehicles, which have generally short life cycles compared to bicycles and other modes of sustainable transport.
A statement by major union activists, intellectuals, professors and workers laid out the seething anger and resolve of the strike, which they say is a just response to Macron “persistently ignoring the anger that is rising in every sector” ever since the Yellow Vests movement was launched last year. In the co-signed statement originally published in major news daily Libération and translated to English by Left Voice, they said:
What is at stake is our future. That’s why, in order to ensure that this plan of action is carried out, it is essential to organize general assemblies to organize the demonstrations and remain in charge of our movement.
We—trade unionist activists, politicians and associations from different organizations and sectors, Yellow Vests, activists from working class neighborhoods, women and LGBTQ+, young climate activists—support this platform: beginning December 5th, each and every one of us must go on strike in our places of work or study and be determined to continue the fight!”
— France 3 Limousin (@F3Limousin) December 5, 2019