France Grinds to a Halt as Massive Strike Begins


PARIS—Cities across France were paralyzed by a massive public transport strike against a planned overhaul of France’s pensions system, in a test of President Emmanuel Macron’s resolve to modernize the economy.

Trains, including the high-speed line between Paris and London, subways and buses were severely curtailed if not halted altogether. Hundreds of flights were canceled. Many schools, and nurseries remained closed, while several museums, including the Louvre, said parts of their collections might not open. Even the Eiffel Tower was closed.

About 806,000 protesters—including lawyers, teachers, students and air-traffic controllers—hit the streets across the country, according to the French interior ministry. Demonstrations were mainly peaceful, despite some clashes with police in Paris, where local authorities counted some 65,000 protesters. Some protesters threw stones at police, who responded by firing tear gas. Unions warned the strike could last days and become one of the biggest in France in over two decades.

The proposed overhaul, a major plank in Mr. Macron’s program, is a perilous move for the president. The plan has drawn the ire of trade unions and risks reviving social unrest just months after turning the page on the yellow-vest crisis. That movement ran out of steam last spring after prominent protesters publicly turned on each other, creating a leadership vacuum that made it hard to translate public rage into action. But there remains a simmering public anger against Mr. Macron’s reform agenda.

Mr. Macron wants to extend the number of years that people are required to work before collecting their pensions—now set at 43 years for a full pension—rather than raising the age of retirement of 62 years old for all workers. That retirement age remains lower than in most other OECD group of rich nations. Under the plan, some people retiring before 64 could receive a lower pension.

Mr. Macron also wants to consolidate France’s 42 different retirement plans—and their special benefits—into one universal system that he says would be more fair. Civil servants, in particular, fear they may lose advantages they have compared with private sector employees.

“The middle class always ends up getting hit the hardest,” said Jean-Jacques Cloux, 58, a civil servant who works for Paris airports.

Victorine Prevost-Meyniac, a 20-year-old art student, worries she won’t be able to retire until she is 70 under the new system, if she doesn’t start working soon. “It seems unfair,” she said.

At the start of his presidency, Mr. Macron abolished France’s wealth tax and loosened its rules for hiring and firing in an attempt to lure investors and tech companies to France. That helped fuel the rise of the yellow-vest movement, sending hundreds of thousands of protesters into French cities to torch cars and smash storefronts. Such carnage brought the government to its knees, forcing Mr. Macron to douse the crisis with billions in cash handouts for minimum wage earners.

Mr. Macron also embarked on a listening tour—crisscrossing the country to hear complaints and suggestions at town hall meetings. He pledged to cut taxes and offer more public services in rural areas. He also promised to pivot away from the top-down governing style that marked his earliest days in office, to shake off his image of an out-of-touch president of the rich.

The French leader is now under pressure to show he can deliver on that pledge, while continuing to forge ahead with his agenda.

Mr. Macron said he wants to make France’s costly pension system more fair and sustainable. France’s public pension plan is expected to hit a €10 billion ($11 billion) deficit by 2022, according to a recent government report, as people live longer and have fewer children.

“There will be less work for us if people retire later,” said Lucas Bauve, a 21-year-old student in Paris.

A recent Ifop poll of 1,004 people showed 76% believed the government should overhaul the country’s pension system, but only 36% trusted Mr. Macron to do it right.

So far the strike hasn’t affected trans-Atlantic travel. On Wednesday, the French Civil Aviation Authority asked airlines to cancel at least 20% of Thursday flights to and from Paris, Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux due to the strike. British budget carrier EasyJet canceled 233 flights on Thursday. Air France said it had to cancel 30% of its domestic flights and 15% of its medium-haul flights.

Mr. Macron is calm and determined to pursue his overhaul of the pension system, a spokeswoman for the French leader said on Thursday.

“We are as motivated as he is,” Bruno Bourinet, a 50-year-old member of the far-left CGT union, said about Mr. Macron, adding he will fight until the government surrenders.