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France on strike: Power cuts, schools shut, no Eiffel Tower

December 17, 2019 GMT
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A protester passes by flares during a demonstration in Lyon, central France, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. Workers at the Eiffel Tower, teachers, doctors, lawyers and people from across the French workforce walked off the job Tuesday to resist a higher retirement age, or to preserve a welfare system they fear their business-friendly president wants to dismantle. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
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A protester passes by flares during a demonstration in Lyon, central France, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. Workers at the Eiffel Tower, teachers, doctors, lawyers and people from across the French workforce walked off the job Tuesday to resist a higher retirement age, or to preserve a welfare system they fear their business-friendly president wants to dismantle. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

PARIS (AP) — French union activists cut electricity to nearly 100,000 homes or offices. Eiffel Tower staff walked off the job. Even Paris opera workers joined in Tuesday’s nationwide protests across France, singing an aria of anger as workers rallied against the government’s plan to raise the retirement age to 64.

Despite 13 days of crippling train and subway strikes, French President Emmanuel Macron and his government stayed firm. The prime minister declared his “total” determination to reshape a pension system that unions celebrate as a model for the rest of the world but that he calls unfair and destined to collapse into debt.

Lighting red flares and marching beneath a blanket of multi-colored union flags, thousands of workers snaked through French cities from Brittany on the Atlantic to the Pyrenees in the south.

Hospital workers in scrubs, Air France staff in uniforms, lawyers wearing long black robes — people from across the French workforce joined in the strikes and protests in higher numbers than the last cross-sector walkout last week.

The retirement reform that has brought them together is just one of their many gripes against Macron, a business-friendly centrist they fear is dismantling France’s costly but oft-envied welfare state.

Workers from the hard-left CGT union on Tuesday carried out what they called “targeted” blackouts on electricity networks around Lyon and Bordeaux to call attention to their grievances, and their power.

Several European countries have raised the retirement age or cut pensions in recent years to keep up with lengthening life expectancy and slowing economic growth. Macron argues that France needs to do the same.

Tourists canceled plans and Paris commuters took hours to get to work Tuesday, as train drivers kept up their strike against changes to a system that allows them and other workers under special pension regimes to retire as early as their 50s.

“Monument Closed” read a sign on the glass wall circling the base of the Eiffel Tower, which was shut for the second time since the strike, one of the most protracted France has seen in years, started Dec. 5.

“It’s very frustrating for us, unfortunately,” South African tourist Victor Hellberg said, gazing up at the 19th century landmark. “We had decided to be here for one day and that’s life I suppose.”

Victor Garcia, visiting from Barcelona, said he’s used to protests at home but admitted not climbing the Eiffel Tower’s steps “is kind of a bummer.”

Police in Paris barricaded the presidential Elysee Palace, bracing for violence by yellow vest activists or other radical demonstrators.

Across the French capital, union leaders demanded that Macron drop the retirement reform.

“They should open their eyes,” said Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT union, said at the head of the Paris march.

With riot police watching closely, protesters carrying humorous signs and colorful costumes marched past the historic Bastille plaza. On the steps of the opera house overlooking the monument, workers sang famous arias and played instruments to defend their special retirement plan.

Bernard Buffet, a costume fitter, is 63 and retiring in April after 35 years at the Bastille Opera, but is protesting in solidarity with younger colleagues.

“The government is stuck on the reform. They are very arrogant,” he said.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe confirmed new negotiations with unions starting Wednesday, but showed no sign of backing down.

“Democratic opposition, union opposition is perfectly legitimate,” he told lawmakers. “But we clearly laid out our plans. And on this plan, the creation of a universal retirement system, my determination ... is total.”

He also paid tribute to “the French who go to work despite difficulties.”

In addition to transportation troubles, parents faced shuttered schools and students had key exams canceled Tuesday as teachers joined in the strike.

Hospitals requisitioned workers to ensure key services Tuesday, as nurses, doctors and pharmacists went on strike to save a once-vaunted public hospital system that’s struggling after years of cost cuts.

Tuesday’s protests upped the pressure on Macron, whose key architect of his pension overhaul had to resign Monday over alleged conflicts of interest.

Unions fear people will have to work longer for lower pensions, and polls suggest at least of half of French people still support the strike. Unions at the SNCF rail authority want to keep the strike going through the Christmas holidays.

While patience was running short among Paris Metro riders squeezing into scarce trains , the strike troubles weren’t enough to scare away some visitors to the City of Light.

Spanish tourist Lydia Marcos, finding the Eiffel Tower unexpectedly closed, shrugged it off and said, “It’s like an excuse to come here another year.”

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Nadine Achoui-Lesage, Nicolas Garriga and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed.