The Eiffel Tower shut down, France’s vaunted high-speed trains stood still and teachers on the job walked off as unions launched nationwide strikes and protests over the government’s plan to overhaul the retirement system.

A man stands on a traffic light during a demonstration in Paris, Dec 5, 2019.
A man stands on a traffic light during a demonstration in Paris, Dec 5, 2019. (AP)

A nationwide strike brought much of France to a standstill on Thursday with more than half a million people hitting the streets to protest the government's planned overhaul of the pension system, one of President Emmanuel Macron's most ambitious reforms.

The huge demonstrations across the country added to walkouts that paralysed transport services and closed schools, with international high-speed rail disrupted and flights cancelled.

Thousands of people marched in several cities ahead of two major demonstrations planned for Paris, where traffic was lighter than usual as many people simply took the day off to avoid the travel chaos.

"People made plans to deal with today and tomorrow, but I'm really worried about Monday, that's when the hassle is going to start," a customer service agent for the national railway company SNCF said at Montparnasse train station in Paris.

Union leaders have vowed to keep up their protest unless Macron drops the pension overhaul, considered a centrepiece of the centrist president's push to reform wide swathes of the French economy.

"This is going to concern everybody, not just part of the population," said Franck, a 46-year-old worker at the automaker PSA, makers of Peugeot and Citroen vehicles, during a demonstration in Rennes, western France.

"Nobody can imagine having to work until you're 70 years old," he said.

Officials have admitted that French workers will gradually have to work longer, but so far have given few details of how a "universal" system that does away with dozens of separate schemes will affect their retirement plans.

Macron's office said on Thursday that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe would lay out the framework for the reform next week, after wrapping up negotiations with unions.

Roads, refineries blocked

Around 90 percent of high-speed TGV trains as well as regional lines were cancelled, and Air France has axed 30 percent of domestic flights and 15 percent of short-haul international routes.

In Paris, only a few of the 16 metro lines were operating, and service on the heavily used suburban rail lines crossing the city was severely disrupted.

"I'm a witness for the wedding of my childhood friend, in Cologne [Germany] tomorrow afternoon, so obviously I can't cancel my trip but this is making me really nervous," said Nicole, who was waiting at the Gard du Nord station in the capital.

The Eiffel Tower and the Orsay museum were shut because of staff shortages, while the Louvre, the Pompidou Centre and other museums warned that some wings and exhibits were closed.

The CGT union said workers had blocked seven of the country's eight oil refineries, raising the prospect of fuel shortages if the strike continues.

TRT World's Elena Casas has more.

And yellow vest protesters, who have staged weekly demonstrations since last year demanding improved living standards, blocked roads in several cities, including Le Havre on the Atlantic coast, where the heavily used port was also shut according to the CGT.

Police have said they are on alert for potential violence during the roughly 250 demonstrations expected across France from a radical fringe that could include the "black bloc" anti-capitalist protesters who infiltrated several "yellow vest" protests over the past year.

Paris police chief Didier Lallement said around 6,000 members of the security forces would be deployed in the capital, and businesses along the demonstration routes have been ordered to shut.

As of midday police said they had detained 18 people in Paris, ahead of the march toward the Place de la Nation set to start at 1300 GMT (2 pm local time).

Dockers march with smoke bombs and hold a banner as they take part in a demonstration to protest against the pension overhauls, in Marseille, southern France, on December 5, 2019
Dockers march with smoke bombs and hold a banner as they take part in a demonstration to protest against the pension overhauls, in Marseille, southern France, on December 5, 2019 (Clement Mahoudeau / AFP)

Macron's latest test

The strike will be a major test of whether Macron, a former investment banker who came to power on the back of a promise to transform France, has the political strength to push through one of his key campaign pledges.

He has already faced a series of protests this year by the "yellow vests" as well as police, firefighters, teachers, hospital workers and lawyers.

But so far Macron has largely succeeded in pushing through controversial reforms to labour and tax laws, while also doing away with job-for-life guarantees and other benefits at the SNCF, for decades considered an untouchable union bastion.

He now wants to implement a "universal" retirement system that would do away with 42 "special regimes" for sectors ranging from rail and energy workers to lawyers and Paris Opera employees, which often grant workers higher pensions or early retirement.

But unions say the changes would effectively require millions of private-sector workers to work beyond the legal retirement age of 62 if they want to receive the full pension they have been promised.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies