PARIS — Parisians thronged the sidewalks, took to bikes and scooters, or canceled their morning commutes altogether Friday, faced with the biggest public transportation strike in nearly 13 years — a warning shot at President Emmanuel Macron’s government over its ambitious pension overhaul plan.
Ten out of 14 metro lines were shut; iron gates were pulled tight over many stations; key hubs like the stations at Opéra and Montparnasse were closed. Only the two completely automated lines were fully functional, and huge crowds waited on the platforms of both — the No. 1 line, heavily used by tourists, which cuts through the heart of the city, and the express No. 14, a limited-stop north-south line.
Only one-third of the city’s buses were operating. The suburban trains, known as the RER, were running far below normal rates as well.
Demand for bicycle- and scooter-sharing systems soared, and some operators offered free rides.
Traffic was heavy coming into the city, as people took to their cars instead, and there were frequent chokepoints within Paris. Jams were reckoned to be at double normal levels.
For a public transit system considered one of the world’s best and most efficient — if not the best — it was a historic shutdown.
“It’s bigger than the one in 1995. Huge. Enormous,” said Jean Christophe Delprat, a union representative.
Friday’s strike is an early warning that the pension overhaul envisioned by Macron could be in for some rough sailing. Early retirement — by US standards — and generous pensions are sacred in France, which is why millions of citizens in their 60s have plenty of leisure time.
Macron’s idea is not to raise the general retirement age but to consolidate France’s 42 public pension systems. He especially wants to do away with the special plans that prevail in professions considered difficult, like the Paris metro, where workers spend hours beneath the streets.
Most French workers retire at 63, but in the RATP, the agency that runs Paris transit, the average retirement age is 55.7, and some workers can even retire at 52, though not on full pensions. As in many French agencies, the pension is based on the last six months of salary.
Macron wants to iron out such anomalies, though the government insists that it would not do away with RATP workers’ special status all at once. The Paris transit workers are crying foul at what they consider a threat to a long-held right.
“We work in difficult conditions, with schedules and times that are difficult,” said Delprat, the union official. “We work most weekends, New Year’s, Christmas. The guy finishes at 2 in the morning. There are suicides on the tracks. We’ve accepted these difficulties, and were conscious of them. But we have certain compensations to make up for it.
“These are not advantages,” he said of the lower retirement ages. “These are compensations.”
On the streets there was grudging acceptance of the strike and muttering over the inconvenience.
“It has slowed down our day,” said Delgado Velo Edwardo, a delivery man. “It has caused traffic jams. It took us two hours to get into Paris from our workplace at Charles de Gaulle” airport.
“I had to leave a little earlier and do half my commute on foot,” said Nour El Hadri, a film producer. “Normally it takes me a half-hour, and today it took me an hour.
“People don’t strike for nothing,” he said. “It affects us, but for them, they’re defending their interests. Everyone has the right.”
Others were more skeptical.
“The strike is for the privileged,” said Martin Altmeyer, a 71-year-old German psychoanalyst. “They call it a social movement, but it is not a social movement. It’s for people who are privileged because they work for the public service, and they earn more money than the private workers. They retire at the age of 50 or 55. Compared to the others who work until the age of 60 or 65, or in Germany 67, it is just not just.”