The Eiffel Tower shut down Thursday, France’s vaunted high-speed trains stood still and teachers walked out as unions launched nationwide strikes and protests over the government’s plan to overhaul the retirement system.
Paris authorities barricaded the presidential palace and deployed 6,000 police for what is expected to be a major demonstration through the capital, an outpouring of anger at President Emmanuel Macron for his centrepiece reform, seen as threatening the French way of life.
The Louvre Museum and other sites warned of strike disruptions, and Paris hotels struggled to fill rooms.
Many visitors, including the US energy secretary, cancelled plans to travel to one of the world’s most-visited countries amid the strike.
Unprepared tourists discovered train stations standing empty Thursday, with about nine out of 10 of high-speed TGV trains cancelled.
Signs at Paris’s Orly Airport showed “cancelled” notices, as the civil aviation authority announced 20% of flights were grounded.
Some travellers 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 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.”
Underground stations across Paris were shut, complicating traffic prompting many commuters to use shared bikes or electric scooters instead.
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.
Braced 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.
Yellow vest activists plan to join unions at the protests in Paris and cities around the country, pressing their campaign for more economic justice.
Transport minister Elisabeth Borne said she expects the travel problems to be just as bad on Friday.
Unions say it is an indefinite 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 Mr 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.
“The five weeks of paid holiday, the state health care system – we got all that through social struggles from people who sacrificed themselves financially for us to get that,” said rail worker Gilles Pierre.
Mr Pierre, who is 41 and according to the current system can retire at 52, acknowledges that the current system is generous, but argues that it is fair compensation for the constraints that go with jobs like his, like working on weekends and holidays.
To Mr 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.