French pensions standoff hardens as strike enters 3rd week

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Six of the 16 Paris metro lines were shut completely on Thursday and suburban rail lines remained severely disrupted

Six of the 16 Paris metro lines were shut completely on Thursday and suburban rail lines remained severely disrupted (AFP Photo/STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN)

Paris (AFP) - A gruelling French transport strike over a planned pension reform entered its third week on Thursday, with little relief in sight after talks between unions and the government failed to bring the two sides any closer to a compromise.

"We're still very, very far from any agreement," Laurent Berger of the CFDT, France's biggest union, said after a marathon day of union meetings with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Wednesday.

More talks are scheduled for Thursday, and President Emmanuel Macron has indicated he is "willing to improve" his plan to eliminate dozens of separate pension schemes by creating a single points-based system.

But unions balk in particular at a new "pivot age" of 64 that workers would have to reach in order to receive a full pension, beyond the official retirement age of 62.

Berger, whose moderate union supports a single system, said that Philippe "again said he would insist on this pivot age, and we told him that was not an option for us."

Other unions have demanded the reform be abandoned completely, and are banking on public support for a strike that has wreaked havoc on daily commutes, and now looks set to jeopardise holiday travel plans.

An Elabe poll released Wednesday found that six in 10 respondents (57 percent) opposed the project, an increase of eight points from a week earlier, with just 43 percent approving.

- 'Basically nothing' -

Six of the 16 Paris metro lines were shut completely on Thursday and suburban rail lines remained severely disrupted, as were services on national lines.

Valerie Pecresse, president of the Ile-de-France region encompassing Paris, called on transport operator RATP to fully reimburse users for the commuting mayhem since the strike was launched on December 5.

"And don't try telling me that some lines still have some trains, because the truth is that for everyone, this minimal service is basically nothing," she told RTL radio.

Grid operator Enedis said striking workers had cut power to some 3,500 homes near Perpignan in southern France, following cuts in Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux and other cities this week, claimed by the hard-line CGT union.

Officials have said they are ready to compromise on the pensions overhaul, which they say will be fairer and more transparent, in particular for women and low earners.

France currently has 42 different legacy systems which offer early retirement and other benefits mainly to public-sector employees, including train drivers, dockers and even Paris Opera employees.

But unions claim the overhaul would effectively force millions of people in both the public and private sectors to retire later or face curtailed payouts.

Along with the strike they have staged three days of mass protests across France, with new demonstrations set for Thursday in Paris and other cities.