Paris saw its most severe transport strike in 12 years on Friday, when the public transport authority RATP observed a "general mobilisation" against President Emmanuel Macron's plans to merge France's 42 pension regimes into a single, universal system.
Ten underground metro lines shut down completely. The only two that functioned, lines 1 and 14, are equipped with driverless trains, in what might serve as a warning of the consequences of automation.
Two in three buses were cancelled, and suburban commuter RER trains were also severely disrupted.
Telephone recordings said business offices were “exceptionally closed” until Monday. This correspondent was stopped by tourists asking where to rent bicycles.
Parisians seemed to take the disruption in their stride, resorting massively to online work from home, ride-sharing, cycling and electric scooters. There were 380km of traffic jams in the Paris region by 5.30pm.
The car-sharing website Blablalines said it expected 10 times the usual number of requests. Klaxit, another site that connects drivers with passengers, claimed use of its application had increased 400 times.
Fees for chauffeur-driven car companies such as Uber, which are calculated by algorithms according to demand, more than doubled.
Cabinet ministers noted that the draft law on pension reform has not yet been written, and that the government was entering a phase of consultation to be completed in December.
"We're a strange country where, before the debate even starts, people go on strike," Marc Fesneau, the minister responsible for relations with parliament, told BFM television. "They're inventing the concept of the preventive strike, which says all reforms are unacceptable."
Philippe Martinez, the head of the neo-communist CGT trade union, accused the government of negotiating in bad faith. "As usual, the government outlines a plan and we can discuss it on the margins, but nothing changes in substance. If they want to solve the strikes, they have to discuss it openly."
Friday's strike was merely "a warning shot", said Bertrand Dumont of the Solidaires RATP trade union.
Doctors, lawyers, physiotherapists and airline pilots are to demonstrate against the reform on Monday. The Force Ouvrière trade union has announced a demonstration on Saturday, September 21st, while the CGT, Solidaire and Sud-Rail have scheduled protests, including rail strikes, for Tuesday the 24th.
The main issue is Macron’s desire to end the “special regimes” enjoyed by the military and police, public utilities and transport companies, and a few cultural institutions such as the Comédie Française and the national opera.
The government seems to have deliberately confused the debate by shrouding it in complex rhetoric about “pivot age” and the length of contributions. Employees believe they will be asked to work longer for lower pensions.
Budget minister Gérald Darmanin told Europe 1 radio that it was not about saving money. “Pensions cost us about €320 billion annually, and we’ll continue spending that much,” he said.
Workers at the RATP retire on average at age 55½, compared with an average age 63 in the private sector and 61 elsewhere in the public sector.