Protesters choked on tear gas shot by French police as tens of thousands of union members marched through the centre of Paris in a show of force on Thursday. Dozens were arrested by riot police in the capital, and tear gas was also fired at protesters marching in the western city of Nantes.
The marches were part of a nationwide strike aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned tranche of pension reforms.
France’s public transport networks ground to a near halt, with railway and metro stations largely deserted and commuters dusting off old bicycles, turning to carpooling, or working from home.
The Eiffel Tower closed to visitors as tourism officials warned sight-seers to stay away as Paris deployed 6,000 police ahead of a major demonstration through the capital.
Workers argue that the proposed reforms would make them work longer for smaller pensions.
“Public transport will be very difficult today, as it will be tomorrow and probably this weekend too,” junior transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told RTL radio.
The country-wide walkout by public workers is thought to be the biggest strike in decades.
The strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who came to power in 2017 on a promise to open up France’s highly regulated economy, against powerful trade unions who say he is set on dismantling worker protections.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said: “[Protesters] are mainly worried that the government’s reform mean they will have to work longer, later in life. Some are also worried they will have their pensions reduced.”
Because workers from several sectors are participating in the strike, including transport staff, teachers, lawyers, health workers, “that means there is an awful lot of disruption not just in Paris, but across the country”, she said.
Transport unions have set no end date for the strike, but Butler said most other workers would likely get back to their day jobs on Friday.
“What we’ve got to do is shut the economy down,” Christian Grolier, a senior official from the Force Ouvriere union, told Reuters news agency. “People are spoiling for a fight.”
As protesters marched, the government warned that rallies may be infiltrated by violent groups.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said thousands of anarchist “black bloc” and hardcore “yellow vest” protesters were expected to wreak havoc. He ordered shops along the route of the Paris march to close.
Trouble erupted away from the main protest in Paris when people in masks and dressed in black ransacked a bus stop near the Place de la Republique, ripped up street furniture, smashed shop windows and threw fireworks at police.
Police in riot gear responded by shooting tear gas and using truncheons against those who rushed at them.
Prosecutors said, in all, 57 people were detained.
Macron says he wants to simplify France’s pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans with different retirement ages and benefits, claiming the system is unfair and too costly.
He wants a single, points-based system under which, for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights.
Past attempts at pension reform have ended badly. In 1995, former president Jacques Chirac’s conservative government caved in to union demands after weeks of crippling protests.
Twenty-four years later, the looming standoff is a risky venture for France’s hard-left unions who have seen membership and public support wane in recent years.
They are battling to remain relevant against a president who has faced down waves of strikes over reforms of the labour market and SNCF railways.
For Macron, the showdown will set the tone for the second half of his mandate, with more difficult reforms to come, including to unemployment benefits.
The strikes follow months of sometimes violent “yellow vest” protests over the high cost of living and the perceived elitism of the political class.
Laurent Berger, head of the reform-minded CFDT union, said the social environment today is more explosive than in 1995.