Transport workers' pension strike brings Paris to a standstill

The action is to protest sweeping reforms to France's pension system, which President Emmanuel Macron says is unfair.

    Commuters have been walking, cycling or taking scooters to try and get to and from work, while others were asked to work from home [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]
    Commuters have been walking, cycling or taking scooters to try and get to and from work, while others were asked to work from home [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

    A massive strike has brought much of Paris's public transport to a halt as unions protest pension reforms in the biggest transport strike in the city for more than a decade.

    Ten of the city's 16 metro lines were closed on Friday, while buses and trams were also affected, prompting long queues of traffic in and around the French capital.

    Commuters were walking, cycling or taking scooters to try and get to and from work, while others were asked to work from home. 

    The action was to protest sweeping reforms to France's pension system, which President Emmanuel Macron says is costly for the French state and in dire need of an overhaul. 

    Macron has said the system is unfair because, while most people can retire at 62, some others - including transport workers - can do so at 55, necessitating that the system be standardised.

    The fight against the pension changes now includes plans for pilots, nurses and lawyers to strike and protest on Monday.

    Paris metro strike
    Commuters wait to board a metro at the Gare du Nord subway station in Paris [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

    Al Jazeera's Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said workers are worried that their pensions are going to be affected and that they will have to work for longer hours in the future. 

    "One woman told me that she is a metro train driver. She's worked for the Paris transport system for 30 years and she says, 'Look, when I went into it, I thought I was going to be guaranteed a certain pension' and now she feels very uncertain about what the future holds," Butler said.

    The pension changes are due to be formally presented and debated in France's parliament next year, following a three-month consultation with unions and employers' groups.

    It is hoped the consultation period will help to avoid the type of mass protests seen earlier this year with the "yellow vest" movement, which saw Macron accused of being "arrogant" and "out-of-touch". But Butler said the road to pension reform will likely be a rocky one for the French government.

    "Pushing through any type of reform in France is never particularly easy, but especially this one, because most people are affected. Most French people have to pay into the French public pension system, there really aren't private pension systems. 

    "Past presidents have tried to overhaul the pension system because it is so costly, but they have failed because they've been met with street demonstrations, so it's unlikely to be an easy task for President Macron," she said.

    Providing alternatives

    Paris transit operator RATP was trying to ease the pain by promoting a plethora of special deals from ride-hailing firms as well self-service bike, moped and scooter providers.

    Verena, a woman using a bicycle provided through the city's Velib bike-sharing system, told AFP she had signed up for the service the day before the strike.

    "I was very lucky, I found one, I had expected to walk for an hour this morning," she said. "It's even electric."

    Others, not least tourists, weren't so lucky.

    "We're trying to go to the Jardin des Plantes [garden], but we're having trouble figuring out which lines are actually working," a British man who gave his name as Tim told AFP.

    But with other workers taking the day off to avoid the gridlock, the situation was not as chaotic as many had feared.

    "Lots of my colleagues organised things so they could stay home. For example we had a meeting today that we pushed back to next week," said Gwenn, a 39-year-old financial controller, at the Bastille station.

    But with other workers taking the day off to avoid the gridlock, the situation was not as chaotic as many had feared.

    "Lots of my colleagues organised things so they could stay home. For example, we had a meeting today that we pushed back to next week," said Gwenn, a 39-year-old financial controller, at the Bastille station.

    Paris metro
    Ten of the city's 16 metro lines were shut down completely while service on most others was 'extremely disrupted' [Bertrand GUAY / AFP]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies