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Commute chaos kicks off pivotal week for French pension reform

Commuters on a Gare Saint-Lazare train station platform as a strike continues against French pension reform plans, in Paris on December 9, 2019.
Commuters on a Gare Saint-Lazare train station platform as a strike continues against French pension reform plans, in Paris on December 9, 2019. Christian Hartmann, Reuters

A crucial week for Emmanuel Macron’s signature pension reform began with a heavily gridlocked Monday morning rush hour in the French capital under a pounding rain. Skies are apt to darken further this week for commuters, tourists and businesses alike as the reform is fleshed out and unions dig in. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the state of play on the fifth day of nationwide strike action and previews the key week ahead.

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Inclement weather and heavily disrupted public transit in the city saw traffic in the greater Paris area on Monday morning set a record for the year with 631 km of gridlock recorded by the Sytadin website. Nine out of 16 métro lines were closed, with all but two others running a skeleton service.

Only 17 percent of national train company (SNCF) workers were on strike Monday, but the figure was higher among many of those critical to operations, like train drivers (77.3 percent), meaning service was heavily compromised with only 15 to 20 percent of trains rolling; only one in five scheduled TGVs, for instance, were running Monday.

 

Internationally, Eurostar listed 20 cancelled trains for Monday and a total of 52 cancelled this week through to Thursday. Thalys pledged two-thirds of trains for Monday and invited passengers planning to travel to or from Paris up to and including December 15 to postpone their journeys if possible.

What’s next for the pension reform?

The retirement revamp in question was a key element of Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 presidential campaign platform. It aims to merge 42 existing pension schemes into one universal points system beginning in 2025, although that timeline is subject to change as negotiations continue.

Indeed, the details of the reform, which have yet to be fully revealed, are still being hammered out behind the scenes. Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe spent the weekend in meetings over the hotly anticipated measures. The High Commissioner for Pensions Jean-Paul Delevoye and Solidarities Minister Agnès Buzyn leading the reform were due to present the conclusions of months of consultations over the plan to unions on Monday afternoon. Macron and Philippe will gather the ministers most involved in the reform for a working dinner to nail down the last of the details on Tuesday. Philippe will then present to reform “in its entirety” on Wednesday around midday.

 

The prime minister has touted the reform as a just one. “We’ll be able to provide extremely positive answers for a lot of folks who are subject to injustices in the current system: Women, farmers and those who have had fragmented careers, for instance,” Philippe said Sunday.

Representatives of the workers who stand to benefit the most from maintaining France’s generous existing special pension schemes, however, disagree. Laurent Brun, head of the CGT-Railworkers union, which is calling for the reform to be dropped, calls a points system “unjust, inequitable and dangerous”.

“If we do not do a far-reaching, serious and progressive reform today, someone else will do one tomorrow that is brutal, really brutal,” Philippe told the Journal du dimanche newspaper on Sunday.

CGT union head Philippe Martinez, meanwhile, told the same Sunday paper that “there is nothing good” in the planned reform and pledged to “hold on until its withdrawal”.

While the government has suggested it is willing to be flexible on modalities like the reform’s timescale, yanking back the key Macron campaign pledge is not on the table. Lower-house majority leader Gilles Le Gendre, asked about withdrawing the reform, swatted away the very notion with “jamais de la vie” (“never as long as I live”).  

What’s next for the strikes and protests?

Emboldened after drawing 800,000 opponents of the reform into the streets across France last Thursday, unions have called a new day of nationwide demonstrations for Tuesday.

Anticipating the risk of vandalism or worse, authorities in the capital have ordered businesses along the planned route of the protest march – between Invalides in the 7th arrondissement (or district) and Denfert-Rochereau in the 14th -- to shut down as a precaution.

Unions, meanwhile, are already anticipating their next big move, with Thursday in their sites. Railworkers union leader Brun has called for “a very tight rhythm of initiatives in order to allow a maximum number of companies to join the battle”. He suggested a strike “every other day for businesses as a whole and, for the SNCF [national rail company], we continue with strike renewals every day”.

“The stronger the movement, the shorter the conflict,” Brun told RTL. “We don’t want the conflict to be long, very clearly we are forfeiting our salary, but that is in the hands of the government.”

Drivers and maintenance workers on two Paris métro lines, the 2 and 6, set the tone for the week on Monday morning when they voted to extend their walkout until Friday.

For Tuesday, 10 Paris métro lines are expected to remain closed, with bus, tram and commuter RER train service in line with the drastically reduced service they saw Monday.

 

Air traffic authorities have asked airlines to trim their flight schedules by 20 percent. The cancellations are to affect departures and arrivals at three Paris area airports (CDG, Orly and Beauvais) as well as Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux airports. In response, Air France cancelled 25 percent of its domestic flights and 10 percent of its medium-range flights for Tuesday, while maintaining its full long-haul schedule. Last Thursday and Friday, Air France, Transavia, EasyJet and Ryanair were forced to cancel hundreds of flights, but air traffic had been fully restored on Saturday.

Commuters and travellers aren’t the only ones affected by the strike. Teachers are also expected to walk out on Tuesday. Schools in the capital were most heavily affected by strikes last week, with 78 percent of kindergarten and primary school teachers in Paris walking off the job on Thursday, according to Le Monde newspaper, which cited municipal figures.

>> 'We won't give up': France's teachers ready for long protest against pension reform plan

Culture is also affected. Staff of the Paris Opéra and the Comédie Française theatre company are the only two French cultural institutions directly affected by the plan to do away with special retirement regimes, and both have shown their disapproval of the reform plan with a rash of cancelled performances since Thursday.

The special pension scheme in place at the Paris Opéra dates back to 1698, under King Louis XIV. Dancer Alexandre Carniato told Agence France-Presse that 120 of his fellow ballet dancers took to the streets to demonstrate against the reform last week. Paris Opéra dancers, whose training can begin when they are eight years old and whose careers entail considerable physical hardship and uncertainty, have historically enjoyed the benefit of full pensions at the age of 42.

 

Some major museums, meanwhile, have partially closed, including a number of rooms at the Louvre, while others including the Musée d’Orsay, Musée de l’Orangerie and the Palais de Tokyo have seen their opening hours shortened amid the strike.

Whether due to striking personnel or transit trouble affecting staffing, cultural landmarks have struggled to inform visitors of cancellations or closures with much notice. A message on the Paris Opéra website telling ticketholders of cancelled performances explains, “Given employees’ right to declare themselves on strike up until show time, the opera was unable to inform spectators earlier, for which it also insists on apologising.”

Fears for business

Secretary of State for the Economy Agnès Pannier-Runacher said Monday that business over the weekend was good in Marseille, Bordeaux and Toulouse, but she was less sanguine about Paris. “The most sensitive subject today is to reassure tourists about the fact that they can come, particularly to Paris,” Pannier-Runacher told news channel Cnews. “In tourism, if you lose reservations, you don’t get them back.”

With the strike action falling during the all-important Christmas shopping season, a year after Yellow Vest protests dampened the 2018 edition, the secretary of state also issued a call to French shoppers. “If you are attached to your merchants, your artisans, now is the time to go to them, now is the time to go buy from them, because it is the moment when they most need it,” she said.

Support for reform… and support for the strike

An IFOP poll released Sunday by the Journal du dimanche showed 53 percent of French people surveyed support the strike or are sympathetic of strikers’ demands, up six points in a single week.

And yet French people have expressed support for the idea of some sort of pension revamp. In another IFOP survey conducted in late November, 76 percent said the pensions system needed reform. But 64 percent said they didn’t trust Macron’s administration or Philippe’s government to be the ones who carry it though.

(With AFP and REUTERS)

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