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PARIS, Dec 17 — Tens of thousands of protesters prepared to hit streets across France today over a pensions overhaul that has sparked a crippling transport strike, though government officials insist they will not give in to union demands they drop the plan.
Pressure on President Emmanuel Macron is growing just days ahead of the Christmas break, after the top official overseeing the pension negotiations was forced to resign Monday over a salary scandal.
Unions have been striking since December 5 in their biggest show of strength in years against plans for a single pensions system, which would do away with 42 separate schemes that offer early retirement and other benefits mainly to public-sector workers.
Critics say the change, which calls for a “pivot age” of 64 to benefit from a full pension, would force millions of people to work beyond the official retirement age of 62 — one of the lowest in Europe.
Commuters in Paris and other big cities have borne the brunt of the transport stoppages so far, but holiday travel plans are now at risk, with just one in four high-speed TGV trains running today.
Clement Lefebvre, a 20-year-old journalism student in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, was waiting at the station for a train to Paris so he could take year-end exams.
“In Paris I’ll have to walk an hour and a half” to get to the school, he told AFP. “I did that all last week too,” he said, adding that some students had had to book hotel rooms.
Other universities have already cancelled or postponed exams.
Over 800,000 people turned out across France for the first mass demos on December 5, though the number had fallen to 340,000 according to the interior ministry on December 10.
In Paris march will begin at Place de la Republique at 1:30 pm and head toward Nation sqaure, traditionally the rallying point fpr protesters.
Police are on high alert after some protesters vandalised storefronts and set fire to vehicles during the previous marches.
Strike organisers are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when they forced a centre-right government to back down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail strikes just before Christmas.
A Harris Interactive poll for RTL radio released Tuesday found that 62 percent of respondents supported the strike, though 69 percent wanted a “Christmas truce” to allow for holiday travel.
But not everyone is convinced.
“This is absurd,” Sylvie Baheux, a 55-year-old gym teacher, said at Paris’ Saint-Lazare station, adding that her usual one-hour commute to work had doubled during the strike.
“It’s complicated, but this pension reform needed to be done,” she told AFP.
The government has said the strike will not derail its overhaul, a key plank in Macron’s far-reaching reform drive for the French economy.
“This reform... is going to be defended,” government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said late yesterday.
Teachers were again set to join the walkouts today, forcing parents to scramble to alternative plans, as were hospital workers, judges and other public employees.
Half the metro lines in Paris were closed, though traffic jams were close to average as many people worked from home or just took the day off.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is scheduled to hold fresh talks with union leaders tomorrow, but a solution to the impasse appears out of reach for now.
“I hope we will finally be heard, and that the government will understand that it has to hit the ‘stop’ button,” Yves Veyrier, head of the Force Ouvriere union, said Monday.
On Monday, the conflict was complicated further by the resignation of Jean-Paul Delevoye, appointed by President Emmanuel Macron to oversee the pension reform, over a scandal about undeclared private-sector payments while he was earning a government salary.
The standoff has meant daily misery for millions of commuters, and threatens the holiday plans of many.
Train operator SNCF has already warned that unless the strike ends soon, it will not have time to get service back to normal by December 25.
Retailers, hotel owners and restaurants, particularly in Paris, have said the strike has severely dented revenues during the crucial holiday season, with some reporting sales drops of up to 60 per cent. — AFP
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