Protesters demonstrate against the French government's proposed pension reforms in Saint-Nazaire on France's west coast, as part of a day of nationwide strikes on January 19, 2023.
Paris/London CNN  — 

Strikes disrupted train services, flights, schools and businesses in France on Thursday as more than one million people protested against the government’s plans to raise the retirement age for most workers.

Protests in major French cities, including Paris, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes and Nice, brought many transport services to a standstill. The Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors.

France’s Interior Ministry said more than a million people took to the streets across the country, including 80,000 in Paris, where small groups of demonstrators threw bottles, rocks and fireworks at riot police.

Eight of the biggest unions took part in the industrial action against pension reforms unveiled by President Emmanuel Macron’s government. The unions have called for another day of action on January 31 against legislation that will require French citizens to work until 64, from 62 currently, to qualify for a full state pension.

The French government has said this is necessary to tackle a pension funding deficit, but the reforms have angered workers at a time when living costs are rising.

Teachers and transport workers were among those who did not report for work. More than 40% of primary school teachers and more than one third of high school teachers went on strike, according to France’s education ministry.

Train lines across France saw “severe disruption,” according to French rail authority SNCF, and metro lines in Paris were hit by full or partial closures, the city transport authority RATP said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Eurostar canceled several services between the French capital and London, according to its website, and some flights at Orly airport were scratched. Charles de Gaulle airport reported “a few delays” due to striking air traffic controllers, but no cancellations.

Train tracks lie empty at Gare de l'Est railway station in Paris as France is hit by widespread traffic disruption amid a nationwide strike against proposed pension reforms.

CGT, one of France’s major confederation of trade unions, estimated that two million people took part in more than 200 protest events across the country, and said that the majority of refinery workers at TotalEnergies (TOT) walked out, interrupting deliveries of oil products. TotalEnergies (TOT) said that fuel supplies at its network of gas stations would not be affected.

Why are people protesting?

Macron’s proposed pension reforms come as workers in France, as elsewhere, are being squeezed by rising food and energy bills. Nurses and ambulance drivers in the United Kingdom are also striking on Thursday over pay and working conditions.

Thousands took part in mass demonstrations on the streets of Paris last year protesting the cost of living, and strikes by workers demanding higher pay caused fuel pumps to run dry across the country a few months ago.

“This reform falls at a moment where there is lots of anger, lots of frustration, lots of fatigue. It’s coming at the worst moment, in fact,” CFE-CGC union chief François Hommeril told CNN on Tuesday, pointing to the inflation that has wracked Europe this year following the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking to journalists in Spain on Thursday, Macron defended the changes as “fair and responsible.”

“If you want the pact between generations to be fair, we must proceed with this reform,” he added.

France spent nearly 14% of GDP on state pensions in 2018, which is more than most other countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Wooden pallets burn, as demonstrators gather during a rally called by French trade unions outside the Gare de Lyon, in Paris on January 19, 2023.

How does France compare?

Government spokesperson Olivier Veran told journalists Wednesday that 40% of French workers will be able to retire before 64 under the proposed regime because of exceptions for those who started work early or who have physically taxing jobs.

“We have the most protective, the most developed system in Europe [for pensions],” he said. “Even after the reforms, we will retire in France better off and earlier than in almost all eurozone countries,” he added.

In Europe and in many other developed economies, the age at which full pension benefits vest is 65 and increasingly moving towards 67.

Overhauling pensions has long been a controversial issue in France, with street protests halting reform efforts in 1995, and successive governments facing stiff resistance to changes that eventually passed in 2004, 2008 and 2010.

An earlier attempt by Macron to revamp France’s pensions system was met with nationwide strikes in 2019 before being abandoned because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

— Saskya Vandoorne in Paris and Al Goodman in Barcelona and Caitlin Hu contributed reporting.