'Sabotage' cuts power to thousands of homes amid French protests

The Eiffel Tower was shut as workers walked off the job; even opera singers belted out arias of anger.

    French railway workers light flares during a Paris protest in France's 13th day of consecutive strikes against pension reform plans [Jean-Michel Belot/Reuters]
    French railway workers light flares during a Paris protest in France's 13th day of consecutive strikes against pension reform plans [Jean-Michel Belot/Reuters]

    French electricity workers on Tuesday sabotaged power networks in Paris and several other French cities, company bosses said, in protest at President Emmanuel Macron's plan to force workers to retire later and receive heavily "reformed" pensions.

    Tens of thousands of homes across France were reportedly left without power, said officials at electric grid operator RTE, a unit of state-controlled utility EDF.

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    "The company firmly condemns the acts of sabotage which have been observed on the electricity network leading to power blackouts," the operator said in a statement.

    Asked earlier by French media about the blackouts, Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, said his members did not deliberately cut off households, but may sometimes target public buildings and big firms.

    Disciplinary proceedings against workers are planned after power generation was reduced by more than 2.4 GW, with blackouts reported mostly at hydrocarbon-powered power plants and hydro-electricity generators.

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    France has enough capacity to meet its needs, but 167,000 homes in the southwestern Gironde region, and in the cities of Nantes, Lyon and Orleans, were cut off.

    The outages came amid continuing widespread protests in Paris and across France against what unions say is a curtailing of workers' benefits.

    Plans to raise the retirement age and unify pension schemes could see some workers losing out, say protest leaders.

    Benefits 'melting in the sun'

    "We want social justice," said Veronique Ragot, a 55-year-old sub-editor at a publishing house demonstrating in Paris.

    "We've seen our social benefits melt in the sun, and this is the last straw."

    Workers at the renowned Paris opera walked out on Tuesday, singing an aria of anger, as workers at the Eiffel Tower also went on strike, shutting down the world-famous monument for the second time this month. 

    But despite two weeks of all-out protests, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said - on the eve of talks with unions - he would push ahead with an overhaul of France's pension system.

    "My determination, and that of the government and the majority, is total," Philippe told parliament, as tens of thousands took to the streets against the plan to create a unified pension system.

    On the streets of Paris, police charged a group of protesters who ignored an ultimatum to disperse and threw Molotov cocktails at police. The clashes happened at the end of a mainly peaceful protest march organised by trade unions, and saw police firing tear gas and stun grenades at demonstrators in the Place de la Nation.

    Mass walkout

    The education ministry said 25 percent of primary school teachers in state schools were out on strike, and 23.3 percent of secondary school teachers. According to the unions themselves, the numbers were twice as high as those cited by the ministry, French media reported.

    We've seen our social benefits melt in the sun, and this is the last straw

    Veronique Ragot, protester

    While those numbers are lower than on December 5, the last time unions called for mass walkouts, the strikes have hit transport networks the hardest.

    State railway operator SNCF said a third of all railway workers were on strike, while the figure among train drivers was 75.8 percent. In both cases, the numbers for strike observance were higher than on Monday.

    Only one in every four high-speed intercity TGV services was running on Tuesday, and only one in every five commuter services ran in the region around Paris, according to SNCF. The company urged travellers not to go to stations seeking to get on trains, citing concerns about passengers getting hurt on overcrowded platforms.

    The Paris urban transport network was experiencing severe delays on all its tram, bus and metro routes, according to the state-owned operator RATP. Eight of the capital's 14 metro lines were closed and the rest had a limited service, apart from two lines that run automated trains.

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    Unions had called the mobilisation hoping to regain momentum after one of the biggest waves of strikes and protests in decades had started to tail off in recent days.

    In Paris, shops were closed along the protest route. Riot police lined both sides of the central Boulevard Beaumarchais and erected a barricades across the traffic circle in Bastille Square. A water cannon truck was parked nearby.

    A broadcaster showed clouds of what its reporter described as tear gas fired on protesters in the western city of Nantes.

    Former investment banker Macron aims to streamline the state pension system and encourage people to work until they are 64. The average retirement age in France is currently 62.

    When all the unions say 'We do not want this reform', the government should have a rethink

    Philippe Martinez, CGT union

    The unions and Macron are each hoping to push the other to back down before Christmas, with the prospect that strikes over the festive period would alienate an increasingly frustrated public.

    "Democratic and union opposition to our project is perfectly legitimate. But we have stated clearly what our project was, and my government is totally determined to reform the pensions system and to balance the pension system's budget," Philippe told parliament.

    Opponents of the pension reform were buoyed by the departure of government pension reform tsar Jean-Paul Delevoye, who quit on Monday over his failure to declare other jobs.

    French workers receive among the world's most generous state pensions through a system divided into dozens of separate schemes. Macron's government argues that privileges for various categories of workers make it unfair, and wants a "points" system to treat contributions from all workers equally. Unions argue this amounts to an attack on hard-earned benefits.

    "When all the unions say 'We do not want this reform', the government should have a rethink," said head of France's CGT union's Martinez, leading a column of demonstrators in Paris' Republic Square.

    "They need to open their eyes and unblock their ears."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies