Paris — Train stations across France were deserted and the Eiffel Tower was closed on Thursday as public sector workers went on strike nationwide against President Emmanuel Macron's planned pension reforms. Some 245 demonstrations were held across the country as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in one of the biggest public sector strikes in decades.
Just one in 10 mainline trains were running Thursday as 85% of drivers walked off the job. International rail links to London, Brussels, Amsterdam and Geneva were also hit.
In Paris, all but two of the 16 metro lines were closed and only one in 10 suburban trains was running. Bus and tram lines were severely hit.
By lunchtime, Paris transport unions had voted to continue the strike until at least late Monday.
The strikes extended well beyond public transport workers. French Air Traffic controllers announced strike action from December 5-7, prompting some delays and canceled flights. Postal services were disrupted, electricity company employees stayed home, and newspaper kiosks had empty shelves as distribution unions refused to ensure supplies.
Public radio played music instead of usual programming.
Meanwhile, schools across the country were closed Thursday as an estimated 55% of teachers went on strike. Lawyers, nurses, doctors and police officers also walked off the job.
The unions are protesting plans for sweeping reforms of France's pension system, which is more than $3 billion in the red and could have a $10 billion deficit by 2025. Macron has said the system, which includes 42 separate pension funds, is unwieldy and ill-adapted to changing work practices. He wants a universal system that would see some sectors, including train drivers, lose their current advantages, but offer those who change career paths or work part-time or as self-employed a higher sum on retirement.
The unions say they want the plans scrapped and new negotiations to begin.
Continued disenchantment with Macron's economic policies has helped fuel the unrest. Protests on Thursday were mostly peaceful, although clashes erupted in the capital.
Groups of so-called black bloc agitators gathered at Place de la République and faced off against armed police who responded with teargas and blocked off exit roads. Others stayed closer to the initial gathering point for the rally, near the Gare de l'Est, and threw stones and cans at police.
Ahead of the unrest, 6,000 police and gendarmes were deployed in the French capital. The Paris police chief announced late Thursday that 87 people have been picked up by police in the capital in relation to protest violence.
People who planned to use the public bicycle system or hire scooters in the capital Thursday found stations empty after police ordered dozens of stations closed and hundreds of bicycles and scooters removed, fearing they would be used by protesters as projectiles against police.
One man, who works a security shift overnight in Paris, had to walk an hour to get home as transportation was paralyzed. "It doesn't please us to walk. It doesn't please us to have to strike," Joseph Kakou said, The Associated Press reported. "But we are obliged to, because we can't work until 90 years old."
Polls show the French are largely behind the protests. One poll shows 69 percent support the strikers, with the strongest backing coming from 18-34-year-olds. Almost the same number of people, however, admit they do not know what the planned reforms entail.
In 1995, public sector strikes lasted three weeks, paralyzing transport links and hitting the economy hard.