French civil workers carried out nationwide strikes and protests Thursday, organizing more than 180 demonstrations to protest President Emmanuel Macron's push for a series of controversial reforms.
Unions have rallied crowds of discontented workers in recent months, driving them to a mass demonstration which will plunge transport and education systems into chaos and could bring Paris to a near standstill.
Police and protesters clashed in Paris after tens of thousands of nurses, teachers and other public sector workers joined forces to march against Macron's reforms.
While the vast majority of the 180 demonstrations nationwide were peaceful, scuffles erupted between police and hooded young protesters in Paris and the western city of Nantes, where security forces fired tear gas and water cannon.
Protesters denounced Macron's proposals to trim some retirement benefits, overhaul unemployment insurance and shake up the highly indebted state-run rail company SNCF, with many chanting: "Together, let's derail Macron!"
"There will ultimately be serious disruption," Transport Minister Elisabeth Borner told RMC radio Wednesday, noting that both train and air traffic will be affected.
The marches started kicking off at around 1 p.m. local time. Strikes led to the cancellation of at least 60 percent of fast trains, 75 percent of inter-city trains and about 30 percent of Paris airport flights.
"The aim of our strike is obviously to create a power struggle with the government in order to obtain our demands. We don't have any other means than to strike and protest. This is part of democracy," civil aviation unionist Norbert Bolis told The Local.
Low wages – as well as the government push to cut federal employment by 120,000 jobs by 2022 and popularizing the use of short-term contracts – are driving union members into the streets for two days of protests.
"The only thing we have had from governments in recent years is cuts. They don't have any other solution than cutting staff and we can't agree with that," Force Ouvriere's Veyrier told The Local.
On Tuesday, following a retirees' march, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government would change tack for the poorest 100,000 out of 7 million pensioners concerned by a tax hike: a sign that a government that prides itself on being firm on reforms can also make exceptions.
Opinion polls show a paradox: a majority of voters back the civil-servant strike but an even bigger majority back the reforms, including cutting the number of civil servants and introducing merit-based pay.
That has led the government, which overhauled labor laws last year and is also crafting a series of other sensitive reforms including of unemployment insurance, to say it will stand by its plans while keeping a close eye on protests.