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French PM stands by pension reform, says open to compromise on timetable

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government would not abandon plans to rebuild France's pension system.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government would not abandon plans to rebuild France's pension system. Martin Bureau, AFP

The French government is willing to compromise on its pension reform but will not abandon plans to rebuild a system that allows some workers to retire in their fifties, it said on Wednesday, a week before a planned transport workers' strike.

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President Emmanuel Macron was elected in May 2017 on a pledge to overhaul the pension system and has promised to introduce a points-based system under which all workers will have the same rights.

But as his centrist government is working on a first draft of the pension reform, unions at state-owned rail and metro operators - where some workers can retire in their fifties - plan an open-ended transport strike on Dec. 5.

"The government is determined to build a universal pension system (…), but we will take the time we need to get there," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told a news conference on Wednesday, suggesting the reform’s timetable was open to discussion.

Philippe said he favoured a compromise between "an immediate and brutal transition" that would make the reforms applicable to people born after 1963, and a "grandfathering" clause that would impact only people entering the labour market from 2025.

France's official retirement age is 62, but it has more than 40 different pension systems, with some allowing workers to retire in their mid- to late fifties or even their early fifties for Paris subway conductors.

Macron has described such specificities as a relic "from another era."

The reforms unveiled in July would still allow people to retire at 62, but on a reduced pension.

Unions say that would effectively force people to work longer, in particular public sector employees who for decades have been allowed to retire earlier, often because of arduous working conditions which critics say no longer apply.

The government is meeting with business and labour leaders Monday and Tuesday to negotiate the overhaul, though a compromise appears unlikely after unions hardened their opposition in recent weeks.

Unions at Air France and electricity group EDF have announced they are joining the strike, as are some lawyers and judges. Some schools have already warned parents no classes are likely next Thursday.

Officials also worry that the strike will attract the support of "Yellow Vest" activists who have staged weekly protests against stagnant living standards over the past year.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)

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