42ºF

Changing tack, French strikers turn off power to press govt

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech as he visits a plant of British-Swedish pharmaceutical group Astrazeneca in Dunkirk, northern France, Monday, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. French President Emmanuel Macron is hosting 180 international business leaders at the Palace of Versailles in a bid to promote France's economic attractiveness despite over six weeks of crippling strikes over his government's planned pension changes.(Denis Charlet/Pool Photo via AP)
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech as he visits a plant of British-Swedish pharmaceutical group Astrazeneca in Dunkirk, northern France, Monday, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. French President Emmanuel Macron is hosting 180 international business leaders at the Palace of Versailles in a bid to promote France's economic attractiveness despite over six weeks of crippling strikes over his government's planned pension changes.(Denis Charlet/Pool Photo via AP)

PARIS – Opening another front in their battle against the French government, protesting workers cut power to thousands of Parisians on Tuesday, plunging homes into darkness and shutting down trains to one of the capital's main airports.

The deliberate outage lasted around two hours. It hit users in the southern suburbs of Paris, which include the Orly international airport and the massive Rungis market that supplies food to the Paris region. Franck Jouanno, a local leader of the leftist CGT union, said power grid workers targeted the area because it is one of “the economic lungs of Europe.”

“It's symbolic,” Jouanno said of the power cut, speaking in a telephone interview. “It made a buzz and that's what everyone wants.”

The CGT is pushing for a complete withdrawal of the French government's plans to overhaul the country's pension system. The planned reforms have triggered six weeks of protests and crippling transport strikes.

But with many striking transport workers now returning to work, and train services largely restored in Paris and nationwide, hardcore protesters are looking for other methods to keep up the pressure on President Emmanuel Macron and his centrist government.

Jouanno described the Paris households that lost power when families were starting their day as “collateral damage.”

“It bothers me, but unfortunately there is always an impact and a power cut isn't the end of the world," he told broadcaster BFM-TV

Power was cut to the automated shuttle train that serves Orly airport. The shuttle's operator, the RATP, said thousands of users were impacted and that it “firmly condemns this act of malice.” Buses were used to transport passengers instead.

Power supplier Enedis said the cut affected 35,000 of its customers. At the Rungis food market, generators took over and maintained power during the outage.

Julien Denormandie, a deputy minister, condemned the union action as “scandalous, irresponsible.”

Macron, who is trying to blend scores of separate pension systems and rules into a universal French pension, says his plan will be fairer to all French workers and will be sustainable as the country ages.

But workers in sectors who can now sometimes retire earlier than the official age of 62 don't want to lose their special privileges. Some power grid workers can retire as young as 57, Jouanno said. Other workers who can retire before their sixties includes Paris Metro and train drivers and Paris Opera workers.

French workers in general don't want the retirement age raised. The government had proposed raising the eligibility age for full pensions from 62 to 64. But it suspended that plan as it sought to tamp down opposition to the pension overhaul. That government compromise has split union opposition to the reform plan, and union representatives have started squabbling among themselves.

On Monday, about 15 union workers from the CGT invaded the Paris headquarters of moderate CFDT union and briefly cut off power in the building.

The CGT and other unions have called for more protests on Friday, when Macron's government will present the pension reform bill to the Cabinet ahead of debate in parliament next month.