French commuters gritted their teeth for a ninth day of public transport strikes yesterday, with unions vowing 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 to try and 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 union said.
Unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when they forced a right-wing government to back down on pension reforms after three weeks of metro and rail strikes just before Christmas.
The prospect of a protracted stand-off has businesses fearing big losses during the crucial year-end festivities, and travellers worried that their Christmas plans may be 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 huge Rungis wholesale food market south of Paris, told AFP yesterday.
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 one in four TGV trains were cancelled.
“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”.
Yesterday President Emmanuel Macron 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,” he told journalists at an EU summit in Brussels.
The overhaul unveiled 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 Twitter that “my door is open and my hand outstretched”.
But Laurent Brun 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.
A poll released on Thursday by the Elabe institute found France evenly divided on Philippe’s plan, with 50% for and 49% against.
But 54% rejected the mooted 64-year cut-off for a full pension, and 54% supported the protest.
Staff at four of France’s eight oil refineries were on strike yesterday, affecting output and raising fears of shortages down the line.
And both Paris operas, the Garnier and the Bastille, again cancelled 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 €17bn ($19bn) by 2025.
The average French person retires at just over 60, years earlier than most in Europe or other rich Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
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