French protest retirement changes, travel disruptions abound

NADINE ACHOUI-LESAGE and MSTYSLAV CHERNOV
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France Strikes

Yellow vests protesters holding a French flag march in Paris, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. A few thousand yellow vest protesters marched Saturday from the Finance Ministry building on the Seine River through southeast Paris, pushing their year-old demands for economic justice and adding the retirement reform to their list of grievances. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

PARIS (AP) — Paris police skirmished Saturday with yellow vest activists who joined a wave of protests against the government's overhaul of France's retirement system, as highway blockades and train stoppages by other protesters disrupted weekend travel around the country.

A few thousand yellow vest protesters marched from the Finance Ministry complex on the Seine River through southeast Paris, pushing their year-old demands for economic fairness — and adding the retirement reform to their list of grievances. Most marchers were peaceful but some threw projectiles or pushed riot officers, prompting repeated bursts of tear gas from police.

The marchers appear to be emboldened by the biggest national demonstrations in years Thursday that kicked off a mass strike-and-protest movement against President Emmanuel Macron's redesign of the pension system.

As the strikes entered a third day Saturday, tourists and shoppers faced shuttered subway lines around Paris and near-empty train stations.

Truckers striking over a fuel tax hike disrupted traffic on highways from Provence in the southeast to Normandy in the northwest. A similar fuel tax is what unleashed the yellow vest movement a year ago, and this convergence of grievances could pose a major new threat to Macron's presidency.

Macron says the reform, which will streamline a convoluted system of 42 special pension plans, will make the national pension system more fair and financially sustainable. The government says it won't raise the official retirement age of 62 but the plan is expected to including financial conditions to encourage people to work longer. Those most against the changes are workers in special categories like transport who can now retire earlier than 62.

So far the travel chaos is not deterring the government. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe plainly told the French in a nationwide address Friday: “You're going to have to work longer.”

He will present details of the plan next week. Philippe did offer one olive branch, saying the changes would be progressive so that they don't become “brutal.”

Unions, however, see the plan as a threat to workers' rights and are digging in for a protracted strike. They also plan new nationwide retirement protests Tuesday.

Emmanuel Buquet, an unemployed 51-year-old from Rouen, said the mass protests gave a new impetus to the waning yellow vest movement.

“Yellow vests are back out in the streets,” he told the AP. “It’s getting worse and worse. We’ve obtained nothing since last year, just crumbs. The reforms are getting stronger and stronger.”

In a society accustomed to strikes, many people have supported the protests, although that sentiment is likely to fade if the French transport shutdown continues through next week.

“I knew it was going to last ... but I did not expect it to be that chaotic," Ley Basaki, who lives in the Paris suburb of Villemomble and commutes to work in the capital, told The Associated Press on Saturday at the Gare de l'Est train station. “There is absolutely nothing here, nothing, nothing. There is no bus, nothing.”

Many travelers were using technology and social networks to find ways around the transport strike — working from home, using ride-sharing apps and riding shared bikes or electric scooters.

But some were using technology to support the strike. A group of activist gamers was raising money via a marathon session on the game-streaming site Twitch. Their manifesto says: “In the face of powers-that-be who are hardening their line and the economic insecurity that is intensifying," they are trying to "occupy other spaces for mobilization and invent other ways of joining the movement.”

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Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.