French strike enters third week as govt, unions deadlocked on pension reform

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French SNCF railway workers on strike attend a demonstration in Paris as France faces its 15th day of consecutive strikes against French government's pensions reform plans, December 19, 2019. — Reuters pic
Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - French SNCF railway workers on strike attend a demonstration in Paris as France faces its 15th day of consecutive strikes against French government's pensions reform plans, December 19, 2019. — Reuters pic

PARIS, Dec 20 — A gruelling French transport strike entered its third week yesterday, wearing out commuters and spoiling the Christmas holiday plans of thousands as the government and unions remained at odds over pension reform.

Talks with the government yesterday evening ended with unions announcing another big protest day on January 9.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said there had been “advances” in the talks, adding that there would be more talks early in the new year.

“The strike continues,” Secretary-general of the main CGT rail workers union Laurent Brun said.

Although the hardline CGT and Sud-Rail unions pledged no let-up in the strike action, the smaller Unsa union urged “a break for the school holidays”.

A series of meetings Wednesday had also failed to bring the two sides closer, though President Emmanuel Macron had indicated he was “willing to improve” his plan for forging a single, points-based system out of 42 existing schemes.

French labour union members and workers on strike attend a demonstration in Paris as France faces its 15th day of consecutive strikes against French government's pensions reform plans, December 19, 2019. — Reuters pic
French labour union members and workers on strike attend a demonstration in Paris as France faces its 15th day of consecutive strikes against French government's pensions reform plans, December 19, 2019. — Reuters pic

‘Pivot age’

Unions baulk in particular at a new “pivot age” of 64 for workers to earn a full pension — two years beyond the official retirement age.

They are hoping for a repeat of 1995 when the government backed down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail stoppages just before Christmas.

An Ifop poll released yesterday found six out of 10 respondents oppose the “pivot age” and more than half have sympathy for the strike despite the daily transport misery brought to bear on millions.

Workers for the SNCF and RATP transport companies have downed tools in protest against the prospect of losing their preferential early retirement dispensation, causing severe disruptions to train, metro and bus services in Paris and other big cities that are set to continue for a 16th day today.

There will be no Christmas truce, unions have vowed, unless the overhaul is scrapped.

Yesterday, the SNCF said 59 per cent of its high-speed TGV and inter-city trains will be cancelled for the two days before Christmas, forcing thousands of people change their travel dates or scramble for alternative transport.

It also said many long-distance TER trains connecting Paris to places like Dijon, Orleans and Troyes are full for the weekend, when many French people leave for their family holidays.

‘Red line’

As attitudes appeared to harden, striking workers interrupted power supply to some 18,000 homes in southern France, including Perpignan and Narbonne, and 12,000 homes in the northern city of Beauvais, grid operator Enedis said.

And protesters again staged rallies across France yesterday, with several hundred marching from the Gare de Lyon in Paris.

The government has vowed it will press ahead with its reform, saying a single pension system will be fairer and more transparent, especially for women and low earners.

Unions claim the overhaul would effectively force millions of people to retire later or face curtailed payouts.

Even the moderate CFDT union, France’s largest, has called the 64-year pivot age a “red line,” though it backs Macron’s push for a single pension scheme for all workers.

Valerie Pecresse, president of the Ile-de-France region encompassing Paris, called on transport operator RATP to fully reimburse commuters for the mayhem since the strike started 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.

French labour union members and workers on strike attend a demonstration in Paris as France faces its 15th day of consecutive strikes against French government's pensions reform plans, December 19, 2019. — Reuters pic
French labour union members and workers on strike attend a demonstration in Paris as France faces its 15th day of consecutive strikes against French government's pensions reform plans, December 19, 2019. — Reuters pic

‘Give them a hand’

Several universities have cancelled or postponed year-end exams since students cannot get to testing centres, and both the Paris and Garnier operas — whose workers also benefit from an early retirement scheme — have dropped dozens of performances.

The protest is also taking a heavy toll on businesses during one of the busiest periods of the year, with industry associations reporting turnover declines of 30 to 60 per cent from a year earlier.

Junior Economy Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher today urged people to patronise local businesses during the crucial holiday season, saying “it’s time to give them a hand”.

Pressure mounted on the government this week when it had to scramble to replace the official overseeing the pension negotiations. Jean-Paul Delevoye was forced to resign after it emerged he had failed to declare more than 120,000 euros of income from outside work.

He now faces an inquiry into the omissions on his asset statements and potentially unlawful remuneration while occupying a government post, the Paris prosecutor’s office announced yesterday. — AFP

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