Christmas plans threatened as French strike drags on

PARIS: French commuters gritted their teeth on the ninth day of a crippling public transport strike Friday (Dec 13), pinning their hopes for an end to the daily misery on the government's offer of fresh negotiations with unions over a contested pensions overhaul.

Many travellers are reconsidering their holiday travel plans as unions stood united in their opposition to the government's plans to fuse the country's 42 pension schemes into a single, points-based system.

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"It is very complicated," 23-year-old child carer Elsa told AFP at Paris' Gare de Lyon station, complaining of the overcrowded trains. Every day since the strike started, she has had to get up early to not miss her train into town, then walk a long way to work.

"If this (the strike) goes on, I will have to keep doing this. It is exhausting, but I have no choice. Not all work can be done from home."

Paris public transport remains largely at a standstill. (Photo: AFP/Alain JOCARD)

READ: French schools hit as unions call new mass pension protests

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The overhaul unveiled by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe this week angered even the moderate CFDT union by proposing a reduced payout for people who retire at the legal age of 62 instead of a so-called "pivot age" of 64 – a "red line" for unions.

They called for new mass demonstrations for Tuesday, the third since the action started on Dec 5 in the biggest show of strength in years by France's notoriously militant unions, which have vowed to continue fighting through the holidays if necessary.

Philippe said Thursday that he would call union leaders to "quickly resume the dialogue" and proposed talks "as soon as possible next week."

"My door is open and my hand outstretched," Philippe said on Twitter.

President Emmanuel Macron, who has spoken little about a centrepiece of his far-ranging reform drive for France, told reporters in Brussels Thursday that "now is the time for consultations."

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

The reform will scrap early retirement and other benefits for mainly public-sector workers – particularly those at state rail operator SNCF and the Paris public transport group RATP.

FRANCE DIVIDED

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

But 54 per cent rejected the mooted "pivot age" of 64 for a full pension, it found, and 54 per cent supported the protest even as patience wore thin on Paris' overfull public transport lines and in the jam-packed streets where pedestrians, cars, motorcycles, bikes and scooters jostled for space.

In Paris, eight of the 16 metro lines were shut down completely Friday and six were offering interrupted service, according to the RATP.

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