A woman walks on a platform at the Saint-Lazare train station in Paris, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019 (Photo: AP)
France's public transport networks ground to a near halt on Thursday as unions dug in for a nationwide strike aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to abandon plans to overhaul the country's Byzantine pension system.
Railway and metro stations in Paris were largely deserted during the early commuter rush hour as commuters dusted off old bicycles, turned to carpooling rides or worked from home.
Before sunrise, riot police deployed along the boutique-lined Champs Elysees boulevard, searching the bags of pedestrians ahead of a day of street protests which the government has warned may be infiltrated by violent groups.
"Public transport will be very difficult today, as it will tomorrow and probably this weekend too," junior transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told RTL radio.
The country-wide walkout by public workers is one of the biggest strikes in decades. Hard-left unions want to cripple transport networks, close schools and leave garbage piled high to force President Emmanuel Macron into retreat.
The SNCF state railway says only one in 10 commuter and high-speed TGV trains will run. Train operators Eurostar and Thalys have cancelled at least half their services linking Paris with London and Brussels. The civil aviation authority asked airlines to cancel around 20% of flights because of knock-on effects from the strike.
More than half of all primary and secondary teachers are expected to walk out and hospital emergency rooms nationwide will operate on thin staffing. Transport unions have set no end-date for the strike.
"What we've got to do is shut the economy down," Christian Grolier, a senior official from the hard-left Force Ouvriere union, told Reuters. "People are spoiling for a fight."
Protesters will march from the capital's Gare du Nord to Place de la Nation in the afternoon.
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 to close. Some 6,000 police will be deployed, including dozens of rapid-response officers on motorbikes.
President Emmanuel Macron wants to simplify France’s unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans, many with different retirement ages and benefits. Macron says 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. Former president Jacques Chirac's conservative government in 1995 caved into 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" over the high cost of living and perceived elitism of political class.
Laurent Berger, head of the reform-minded CFDT union, said the social environment was more explosive than in 1995.
"In terms of tension, social cohesion and fractures within society, it's a lot worse now," Berger told Reuters.