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France Paralyzed By Strike Over Pension Reform


Strikes and protests paralyzed much of France today over a plan where details haven't even been released. President Emmanuel Macron wants to overhaul the country's retirement system. Major unions in France's left-wing parties have vowed to fight whatever he proposes. They're hoping today's protests will turn into weeks of gridlock and force the government to back down. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Nurses, pilots, teachers and train drivers were just some of the hundreds of thousands who walked off the job and into the streets to protest Macron's plans to simplify the nation's complex pension system. Unions say more than a million people took part in the nationwide protests.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: In Paris, marchers made their way through the city, chanting and carrying signs with slogans like, real revolt, fake deficit. Documentary filmmaker Phillippe Pichon was one of them.

PHILIPPE PICHON: (Through interpreter) I'm out here against this government, which has little by little dismantled everything French society has built up since World War II - unemployment insurance, retirement, health care. Macron is managing France like a company on the stock exchange.

BEARDSLEY: Members of Macron's government appeared on TV...



BEARDSLEY: ...Trying to assure viewers the overhaul would be equitable and would even benefit those penalized under the current system, like women on maternity leave. Gilles LeGendre is head of the president's party in the National Assembly.


GILLES LEGENDRE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The goal of this reform is to unify the 42 different plans into one, he said, and to make sure once and for all that our retirement system is not subject to debt and the whims of the financial markets. The government has said it won't increase the retirement age. Still, retired engineer Christian Jeannot says he's having none of it.

CHRISTIAN JEANNOT: (Through interpreter) Considering what Macron's already done to social rights, this gives us a good idea of what he's going to do with our retirement. He's given millions to billionaires, and he wants to take away what little the working class has.


BEARDSLEY: The crowd cheers as several men climb onto a rooftop and unfurl a banner. It says, big revolutions are born from little miseries.


BEARDSLEY: The procession is blocked at Place de la Republique, where police confront young men clearly spoiling for a fight.


BEARDSLEY: The air soon becomes thick with tear gas, and a large fire burns on a side street. Violence seems to have become a regular part of protest marches since the yellow vest movement last year. Protester Michel Robert wanted the crowd to push through the police line.

MICHEL ROBERT: The police is blocking every place, and we cannot demonstrate, and it's why everyone is going all around. And so we are saying, like, please just let us go and demonstrate as we have the right to do.

BEARDSLEY: The police say they made more than 90 arrests after the violence, but just a few blocks away, people were going about their day oblivious to the chaos. Twenty-three-year-old Marie Vanier was just trying to get to her theater class.

MARIE VANIER: So I've been walking for two hours because there is a strike going on. I actually have no idea what's going on, but I think it's a strike of people on the subway for sure.

BEARDSLEY: Macron's government says it's determined to improve the retirement system. The unions have extended their strike through Monday.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.