Striking French rail workers have clashed with riot police in Paris after holding a demonstration against pension changes despite Emmanuel Macron’s call for a Christmas truce.
Hundreds of trade unionists and strikers gathered on Monday morning outside Gare de Lyon, which is used by large numbers of passengers travelling south for the holidays or to ski resorts near the Alps, and where many services have been cancelled.
Some strikers made speeches denouncing the government’s proposed changes to the pension system and vowed to continue their stoppages into Christmas and the new year.
Protesters let off flares and fireworks, and smoke drifted down into the station concourse. Riot police with helmets and shields were positioned at ticket barriers.
The nationwide transport strikes have been going on for 19 days, causing what the state rail operator SNCF called “ongoing severe disruption” to services.
A majority of trade unions and grassroots rail workers ignored the French president’s plea for a Christmas pause as passengers queued at ticket offices to find seats on the few trains running. Some train routes were cut short and some services were replaced by coaches.
About 48% of ticket holders had their high-speed and intercity services cancelled on 23 and 24 December, leaving many to scramble for car-share schemes or last-minute vehicle hire.
Severe disruption continued on the Paris métro and local trains in the region around the capital. Large crowds gathering at Gare du Nord for the reduced trains to the suburbs.
Some passengers trying to reach airports near Paris complained that taxis were hard to find and certain drivers were charging higher than usual prices – exceeding the standard flat fee – because the traffic jams on the Paris ring road were so long. Others expressed concerns about how they would return at the end of the Christmas holidays, with strikes due to continue into January.
Meanwhile, a production shutdown was under way at Lavera oil refinery in southern France, which processes 210,000 barrels per day, after workers represented by the CGT union voted to stop output as part of the protests over pension changes.
CGT union workers also voted to halt production at Total’s Grandpuits refinery. Emmanuel Lepine, the secretary general of the CGT’s oil branch, told France Info radio that CGT workers at other refineries in France could also vote to halt production.
“We gave an ultimatum to the government, it didn’t listen, so we’re doing exactly what we promised,” Lepine said. “What we are demanding is the withdrawal of the reform.”
State officials have begun preparing for another round of union negotiations in the coming weeks before a further national day of protests on 9 January.
The government has insisted it will push ahead with attempts to unify the French pension system, arguing that removing 42 “special” regimes for sectors ranging from rail and energy workers to lawyers and Opéra de Paris staff is crucial to keep the system financially viable as the population ages.
While some unions support a single system, almost all reject any age-related changes. Unions are angry at government plans to introduce a “pivot age” – keeping the legal retirement age at 62 but insisting on an additional two years of work to receive a full pension.