PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron suggested Thursday that he was ready to make changes to his plans to overhaul the pension system as a major union warned that nationwide strikes and protests could continue unabated until Christmas.
Labor strikes crippled France's train services and Paris metro for an eighth day.
Tensions flared in several cities as largely peaceful demonstration were being staged across the country. Police fired tear gas at protesters in Nantes and Lille, and activists set vehicles on fire in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille.
Speaking at his arrival at a European Union summit in Brussels one day after Prime Minister Edouard Philippe detailed the government's pension measure, Macron called for opening new talks with workers unions. The government “has made a proposal and now dialogue must open," he said.
Unions have flatly rejected fresh proposals by the government to stagger the roll-out of the plan that would require France's youngest workers to stay on the job two years longer, until the age of 64, to be eligible for a full pension.
“No Christmas break unless the government comes to its senses,” Laurent Brun of the CGT union (General Work Confederation) warned Thursday.
Workers across many public sectors — including teachers, doctors, nurses, railway personnel and garbage collectors — are participating in the nationwide general strike.
The National Syndicate of High School Teachers said it was “stepping up” its actions against changes it branded “unacceptable” with fresh protests Thursday across major French cities.
The unions' quick dismissal of the proposal the government made Wednesday signals that labor leaders were serious when they billed the strikes as “unlimited.”
Macron's party has the majority in Parliament, which is expected to approve the proposal at the beginning of next year.
The strikes threaten to mirror similar ones in 1995 that lasted more than three weeks and ended with the proposed pension reforms being scrapped. The 1995 strikes have been compared in scale to the seismic events of May 1968, when France reached the brink of revolution.
Parisians have been adversely affected because they rely the most on public transportation, while other parts of France have experienced less aggravation. Polls show the striking workers have widespread public support.
“I totally understand why people are on strike. ... Obviously, everyone is affected by the pension reform," London-Paris commuter Nicolas Lipitei said.
“(But) I think there should be better provisions to accommodate getting to work. There’s a huge impact on the economy, a huge impact to people,” he added.
Many French people and the unions leading the strikes fear the new system will force people to work longer for smaller pensions.
Protesters also express a broader anger at Macron's pro-business policies, seen as threatening the French welfare state.
Amid protesters marching Thursday in Paris was 46-year-old Franck Delobel, a computer programmer wearing a yellow vest in reference to the movement that broke out one year ago against social and fiscal injustice.
“We’ve been in the streets for a year now, still for the same reasons. I hope they will understand that if they are making us poorer, people will want more than just their pension," he said.
The government said the changes would ensure the pension system is “fair and sustainable" in the face of a growing population with a record number of people over age 90.
Nicolas Garriga contributed.
This story has been corrected by removing an erroneous reference to Prime Minister Alain Juppe being ousted in 1995.