France faces huge disruption as pension protests kick off
France woke up to a day of paralysis Tuesday with transport blockages, mass strikes and demonstrations hitting the country for the second time in a month to protest a planned reform to raise the retirement age.
Around a million people were expected to take to the streets nationwide, a police source told AFP, rallying against plans to boost the age of retirement from 62 to 64.
Some 11,000 police were mobilized across the country, with 4,000 deployed in Paris where several hundred extremist troublemakers were expected, according to the interior ministry.
On January 19, some 1.1 million took to the streets in rallies against the proposed shake-up -- the largest protests since the last major round of pension reform in 2010.
Millions had to find alternative means of transport Tuesday, work from home or take time off to look after their school-age children, with workers in transport and education sectors among those staging walkouts.
"This is about more than pensions, it is about what kind of society we want," 59-year-old university professor Martine Beugnet told AFP, saying she would take part in Tuesday's protest.
Most Paris metro and suburban rail services were severely restricted, the capital's transport operator RATP said.
Intercity travel was also disrupted, with just one in three high-speed trains likely to run, railway company SNCF predicted.
- 'Get another train' -
In the southwestern city of Bordeaux, Cheikh Sadibou Tamamate, 36, arrived at the train station in the small hours of Tuesday, hoping to catch a morning train to Paris after the one he was booked on around 5:00 am (0400 GMT) never left.
"Unfortunately it was cancelled," he said.
Sitting on a bench with an open laptop Guillaume Chaux, 32, said he discovered his train had been cancelled as he arrived at the station, but he still hoped to make it to London Tuesday.
"I'm looking at travel apps to see if I can get another train. Nobody has told me anything," he said.
Air travel is to be less badly affected, with national carrier Air France saying it would cancel one in 10 short and medium-haul services, but long-distance flights would be unaffected.
Only minor disruptions were expected on international train services including the Eurostar.
Around half of all nursery and primary school teachers would be striking, the main teachers' union Snuipp-FSU said.
France's oil industry was mostly paralyzed, with the hardleft CGT union at energy giant TotalEnergies reporting between 75 and 100 percent of workers on strike.
- 'Non-negotiable' -
Sixty-one percent of French people support the protest movement, a poll by the OpinionWay survey group showed on Monday -- a rise of three percentage points from January 12.
The most controversial part of the overhaul is hiking the minimum retirement age.
But the changes are also to increase the number of years people have to make contributions before they can receive a full pension.
President Emmanuel Macron put pensions reform at the heart of his re-election campaign last year.
The 45-year-old centrist on Monday said the changes were "essential when we compare ourselves to the rest of Europe".
France has the lowest qualifying age for a state pension among major European economies.
The government has said the changes are necessary to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.
But opponents point out that the system is not in trouble, quoting the head of the independent Pensions Advisory Council as saying: "Pension spending is not out of control, it's relatively contained."
The government has signalled there could be wiggle room on some of the suggested measures, but Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has said raising the age of retirement was "non-negotiable".
Parliament committees started examining the bill on Monday.
The left-wing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft legislation in a bid to slow its path through parliament.
Macron's centrist allies, short of an absolute majority, will need votes from conservatives to push through the new legislation.
The strikes won't suffice, the opposition must put forward alternative solutions to address the financing issues in the pension system, and show why these alternatives are preferable to raising the retirement age.