Classrooms in France were empty, trains were still and the Paris metro was heavily disrupted on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of workers around the country went on strike and protested President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the legal age of retirement.
More than 200 demonstrations were planned, and the authorities expected 550,000 to 750,000 protesters to march on the first day of what could be a prolonged showdown between the government and a united front of labor unions.
Teachers, railway workers and employees at public radio stations and oil refineries went on strike, traffic at the northern port of Calais ground to a halt and the Eiffel Tower was closed. Labor unions at France’s national electric utility company, where nearly 45 percent of employees were on strike, said they had intentionally lowered output.
The walkout represents a crucial test for both the unions, who need a show of strength, and for Mr. Macron, who is hoping to forge ahead despite widespread popular opposition to his plans, which include a measure to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.
“If there is no positive response from the government, today is a first step, and there will be a second step,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT labor union, told reporters before the march in Paris.
The strikes and protests were an echo of 2019, when Mr. Macron first tried to retool France’s complex but generous state-backed pension system by overhauling it entirely. Those plans prompted huge demonstrations until the coronavirus pandemic forced the government to drop them.
Labor Organizing and Union Drives
Mr. Macron’s newest plan is a more straightforward attempt to balance the system’s budget by making the French work longer.
The plan, presented last week and expected to be discussed by Parliament in February, would also accelerate a previous change that increased the number of years that workers have to pay into the system to get a full pension.
But the latest public opinion polls show that roughly 60 percent of French people are opposed to Mr. Macron’s plans, despite measures that the government says will keep the system fair, like continued exemptions allowing those who begin working at younger ages to retire earlier. Older job seekers, who have found themselves effectively shut out of France’s labor market, are particularly worried about the prospect of delayed retirement.
By noon on Thursday, hundreds of thousands of protesters had marched in Nantes, Marseille, Toulouse and other cities, chanting and carrying signs with slogans like “Retirement before arthritis.” The biggest protest was in the capital, Paris, where the Place de la République was crammed with demonstrators.
Fearful of the clashes between police officers in riot gear and violent protesters that often mar French demonstrations, many stores in Paris had boarded up their windows. Over 10,000 police officers were deployed across the country to bolster security at the protests, the authorities said.
In Paris, near the Place de la Bastille, Thomas Ouvriard, 20, a political science university student, and Ignacio Franzone, 23, a worker at the French post office, smiled as they hoisted up a gigantic poster that depicted Mr. Macron dressed as King Louis XIV with an unflinching stare.
“Of course in France, we have cut off the heads of kings in our past history,” Mr. Franzone said. “We’re not there yet with Macron, but we’re here to win this fight.”
Both men said they were protesting partly out of solidarity but also out of concern for their own futures. They argued that the government should fund the pension system by raising taxes on the wealthy and on companies, rather than by making people work longer.
“As it is, young people have a really hard time getting jobs, so we’re starting to work later in life and we’re going to have to keep working later,” Mr. Ouvriard said.
At midday on Thursday, labor unions said that 65 to 70 percent of teachers were on strike in elementary, middle and high schools; the education ministry said the figure was lower, about 35 to 42 percent.
“The government has lost its first battle: convincing people that the reform is necessary,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the prominent leftist politician of the France Unbowed party, and a fierce opponent of Mr. Macron, told reporters in Marseille.
Nationwide, many trains were canceled. In Paris, a handful of metro lines were completely shut down, and many were open only during rush hour or heavily disrupted. Service was also intermittent on many of the Paris region’s commuter lines, some of the busiest in Europe.
The disruptions did not fuel chaos in train stations, however, because many Parisians elected to work from home or use different modes of transportation.
But the delays and cancellations did fuel frustration. At the Gare du Nord, a major train station in Paris, Catherine Gross, 42, was fuming in front of the station board.
“My train keeps getting delayed, I’ve been wandering around the station for two and a half hours,” said Ms. Gross, an insurance saleswoman. “I’m sorry to say that about the strikers, but they are getting on my nerves.”
When another train that she was supposed to take was canceled, she said she had lost all hope of getting to her office in Gennevilliers, north of Paris.
“I get that they are fighting for their right to retire at 62, but right now they are not influencing Emmanuel Macron or Élisabeth Borne, they are just hurting the ones that are willing to go to work,” she said, referring to France’s president and prime minister.
Olivier Dussopt, the French labor minister, told the LCI news channel that the government respected the right of strikers to protest but did not want the country to come to a standstill.
“When it comes to pensions, there are always concerns,” Mr. Dussopt said. “We know that we are asking the French to collectively work more.”
“All pension reforms have had difficulties with public opinion,” Mr. Dussopt added. “For every French person, it is a very personal question.”
Liz Alderman and Tom Nouvian contributed reporting.