PARIS (AP) — The Eiffel Tower shut down, France’s vaunted high-speed trains stood still and teachers walked off the job as unions launched nationwide strikes and protests Thursday over the government’s plan to overhaul the retirement system.
Paris authorities barricaded the presidential palace and deployed 6,000 police as activists – many in yellow vests representing France’s year-old movement for economic justice – gathered for a major march through the capital.
Organizers hope for a mass outpouring of anger at President Emmanuel Macron for his centerpiece reform, seen as threatening the hard-fought French way of life. Macron himself remained “calm and determined” to push it through, according to a top presidential official.
The Louvre Museum warned of strike disruptions, and Paris hotels struggled to fill rooms. Many visitors – including the U.S. energy secretary – canceled plans to travel to one of the world’s most-visited countries amid the strike.
Unprepared tourists discovered historic train stations standing empty Thursday, with about nine out of 10 of high-speed TGV trains canceled. Signs at Paris’ Orly Airport showed “canceled” notices, as the civil aviation authority announced 20% of flights were grounded.
Some travelers showed support for the striking workers, but others complained about being embroiled in someone else’s fight.
“I arrived at the airport this morning and I had no idea about the strike happening, and I was waiting for two hours in the airport for the train to arrive and it didn’t arrive,” said vacationer Ian Crossen, from New York. “I feel a little bit frustrated. And I’ve spent a lot of money. I’ve spent money I didn’t need to, apparently.”
Vladimir Madeira, a Chilean tourist who had traveled to Paris for vacation, said the strike has been “a nightmare.” He hadn’t heard about the protest until he arrived in Paris, and transport disruptions had foiled his plans to travel directly to Zurich on Thursday.
Beneath the closed Eiffel Tower, tourists from Thailand, Canada and Spain echoed those sentiments.
Subway stations across Paris were shuttered, complicating traffic – and prompting many commuters to use shared bikes or electric scooters despite near-freezing temperatures. Many workers in the Paris region worked from home or took a day off to stay with their children, since 78% of teachers in the capital were on strike.
Bracing for possible violence and damage along the route of the Paris march, police ordered all businesses, cafes and restaurants in the area to close. Authorities also issued a ban on protests on the Champs-Elysees avenue, around the presidential palace, parliament and Notre Dame Cathedral.
Police carried out security checks of more than 3,000 people arriving for the protest and detained 18 even before it started. Embassies warned tourists to avoid the protest area.
Elsewhere around France, thousands of red-vested union activists marched through cities from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Lille in the north.
The big question is how long the strike will last. Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said she expects the travel troubles to be just as bad Friday.
Unions say it’s an open-ended movement and hope to keep up momentum at least for a week, in hopes of forcing the government to make concessions.
Public sector workers fear Macron’s reform will force them to work longer and shrink their pensions. And they see this fight as crucial to saving France’s social safety net. Some private sector workers welcome the reform, but others support the strike.
Joseph Kakou, who works an overnight security shift in western Paris, walked an hour across the city to get home to the eastern side of town Thursday morning.
“It doesn’t please us to walk. It doesn’t please us to have to strike,” Kakou told The Associated Press said. “But we are obliged to, because we can’t work until 90 years old.”
To Macron, the retirement reform is central to his plan to transform France so it can compete globally in the 21st century. The government argues France’s 42 retirement systems need streamlining.
While Macron respects the right to strike, he “is convinced that the reform is needed, he is committed, that’s the project he presented the French in 2017” during his election campaign, the presidential official said. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.
After extensive meetings with workers, the high commissioner for pensions is expected to detail reform proposals next week, and the prime minister will release the government’s plan days after that.