France braces for holiday misery as pension strike persists

Mariëtte Le Roux and Joseph Schmid
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Security agents monitored packed suburban rail trains at the Gare du Nord station in Paris on Friday, during the ninth day of a public transport strike over pension overhauls

Security agents monitored packed suburban rail trains at the Gare du Nord station in Paris on Friday, during the ninth day of a public transport strike over pension overhauls. (AFP Photo/Christophe ARCHAMBAULT)

Paris (AFP) - French commuters endured a ninth day of public transport strikes Friday, with little relief expected in coming days as unions vow to keep up their protest against a pension overhaul through the holidays unless the government backs down.

Officials have said they are ready to negotiate, with Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer meeting teachers' representatives on Friday to try to stave off another day of class shutdowns.

"It was an intense and frank meeting... but we still need details, and maintain our call to strike on Tuesday," Stephane Crochet of the SE-Unsa teachers' union said.

Unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when they forced a rightwing government to back down on pension reforms after three weeks of metro and rail strikes just before Christmas.

The prospect of a protracted standoff has businesses fearing big losses during the crucial year-end festivities, and travellers worried that their holiday plans are compromised.

"Right now it's a catastrophe here, but we're hoping there will be a solution before Christmas," Frederic Masse, a foie gras producer at the sprawling Rungis wholesale food market south of Paris, told AFP on Friday.

The capital city was again choked by huge traffic jams as most metro lines remained shut, only a handful of buses and trams were running, and three in four TGV trains were cancelled.

Officials warned Friday of similar disruptions through the weekend, with train operator SNCF saying that on Tuesday it will start warning ticket holders of their chances of travel during the Christmas break that begins next Saturday.

"I'm sick of this, and I won't be able to keep working if it goes on," Zigo Makango, a 57-year-old security agent, told AFP onboard a bus in the Bobigny suburb northeast of Paris.

To get home at night Makango said he has to use taxis, but "my boss doesn't reimburse me for that".

- 'Historic reform' -

President Emmanuel Macron on Friday expressed his "solidarity" with people impacted by the strike, "but I want the government to continue its work" in forging a single pension system, a key campaign promise.

"It's a historic reform for the country... for a welfare state of the 21st century," he told journalists at an EU summit in Brussels.

The overhaul, unveiled this week by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, would do away with 42 separate regimes, some of which offer early retirement and other benefits to public-sector employees such as train drivers, dockers and even Paris Opera employees.

But Philippe angered unions further by proposing a reduced payout for people who retire at the legal age of 62 instead of a new, so-called "pivot age" of 64.

They have called for new mass demonstrations for next Tuesday, the third since the action started on December 5 in the biggest show of strength in years by France's notoriously militant unions.

Philippe insisted on Friday that he had "absolutely no fear of (leading) this reform" despite the strikes.

Laurent Brun, however, of the hard-line CGT union, the largest among public-sector workers including those at rail operator SNCF, has already warned "There won't be any Christmas truce" unless the government drops the plan entirely.

- France divided -

A poll released Thursday by the Elabe institute found France evenly divided on Philippe's plan, with 50 percent for and 49 percent against.

But 54 percent rejected the mooted 64-year cutoff for a full pension, and 54 percent supported the protest.

Staff at four of France's eight oil refineries were on strike Friday, affecting output and raising fears of shortages down the line.

And both Paris operas, the Garnier and the Bastille, again cancelled Friday performances and others through the weekend.

Macron's government insists the changes will make for a fairer system and help erase pension system deficits forecast to reach as much as 17 billion euros ($19 billion) by 2025.

The average French person retires at just over 60, years earlier than most in Europe or other rich OECD countries.