Mass strikes spark shutdowns in France as pension age protesters rally

ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson witnessed some of the violent clashes in Paris

French roads, airports and railway stations have been blocked during the latest round of protests by demonstrators opposing controversial reforms to the pension system in France.

French trade unions on Thursday held their first mass demonstrations since Emmanuel Macron forced through a bill raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a vote.

Huge crowds have started marching in the major cities of Marseille, Lyon, Paris and Nantes as more than 250 protests were organised across the country.

People blocked tracks at Paris's Gare de Lyon station on Thursday morning

At Paris' Gare de Lyon train station, several hundred unionists and strikers walked on the railway tracks to prevent trains from moving.

Many of them brandished flares and chanting “and we will go, and we will go until withdrawal" and “Macron, go away”.

Protesters have also blockaded Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, with major tourist attractions, including the Eiffel Tower and the Versailles Palace, closed on Thursday due to the strikes.

On a ninth day of nationwide protests, high-speed and regional trains, the Paris metro and public transportation systems in several major cities were disrupted.

A protester throws a stone as he scuffle with riot police during rally in Nantes, western France. Credit: AP

About 30% of flights at Paris Orly Airport were cancelled, and, according to France's civil aviation authority, flight services will continue to be reduced at the weekend.

Demonstrators also targeted oil depots and blocked a Liquefied Natural Gas terminal in the northern French city of Dunkirk.

Place de la Bastille in Paris is currently the site of a large demonstration, as anger continues to mount over the pension plans.

What are the pension reforms that have sparked such a huge backlash?

The reform would require 43 years of work to earn a full pension at 64, otherwise workers would still have to wait until they turn 67.

Mr Macron has argued that the proposed pension changes are needed to make the French economy more competitive and to keep the pension system from diving into deficit.

France, like many richer nations, faces lower birth rates and longer life expectancy, and the reforms have been made the key priority of his second term in office.

Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech during the National Roundtable on Diplomacy at the foreign ministry in Paris. Credit: AP Photo/Michel Euler, File

The French government invoked a constitutional provision last week to get the pension bill adopted without the approval of lawmakers. The bill must now pass a review by France’s Constitutional Council before becoming law. Mr Macron's government survived two no-confidence votes in the lower chamber of parliament on Monday.

Opponents proposed other solutions, including higher taxes on the wealthy or companies, which Mr Macron says would hurt the economy.

In Pantin, in the northern suburbs of Paris, several dozen union members blocked a bus depot. Nadia Belhoum, a 48-year-old bus driver participating in the action, criticised Mr Macron’s decision to force the higher retirement age through. “The president of the Republic is supposed to ... take into consideration the desires and needs of his people. He is not a king, and he should listen to his people," she said.

Most protests against the bill have been peaceful, but anger has mounted since the government bypassed a vote in parliament, where it does not have an absolute majority. Since then, the past week has seen rubbish bins set ablaze and scuffles with police in major French cities, including Paris.

Mr Macron said he has tasked his prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, with trying to shore up more support for the government from lawmakers.

The 45-year-old centrist president, in his second and final term, said he wanted to involve unions more on future policy changes on public issues such as education and health.

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