French PM warns of long pensions standoff in face of new protests

Paris (AFP) –


French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe warned ruling party lawmakers Tuesday to brace for a long battle over the government's pension reforms, as tens of thousands took to the streets to back a transport strike that has caused six days of travel misery.

The industrial action, which has paralysed public transport in Paris and severely disrupted national rail services, is the biggest show of union force since President Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017 vowing to cut public spending and make the economy more competitive.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of people took part in new demonstrations around the country over the government's proposal to merge the country's 42 separate pension schemes into a single points-based system.

But there were far fewer participants than on the first day of the strike on December 5, when more than 800,000 people took to the streets.

On Wednesday, Philippe is to unveil the details of the pensions overhaul in an eagerly awaited speech.

But on Tuesday he downplayed the prospect of a speedy breakthrough in the dispute, saying there would be "no magic announcements" that would bring the protests to a sudden halt.

"It's not because I'm giving a speech that the demonstrations will stop. The speech will even raise new questions, and that's how it should be," he told MPs from Macron's centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party.

Those opposing the reform accuse former investment banker Macron of trying to roll back France's costly but highly cherished welfare state.

The official retirement age in France is 62, one of the lowest among developed countries.

The government has argued that reforming the debt-laden system -- including getting the French to work longer -- is necessary to ensuring its sustainability.

- Concessions? -

On Tuesday, Philippe tried to reassure train drivers, electricity workers, ballet dancers and other workers who retire earlier or with more generous pensions than the average worker, that the changes would be gradual.

"We will not call into question those who are benefitting from them (special schemes)," he said, hinting that the changes, which would require the French to work longer, will only affect younger generations.

France's famously militant unions have so far sounded an uncompromising note, however, insisting that they will not call off the strike unless the reform is scrapped outright.

The strike has revived memories of three-week-long strikes over pension reforms that crippled France in 1995, forcing the centre-right government of the day to reverse course.

Teachers joined the industrial action Tuesday for the second time in a week, but with only 12 percent of primary teachers and 19 percent of secondary teachers walking out far fewer schools were closed than on December 5.

Julien Sergere, a 38-year-old teacher who marched in Paris told AFP he was worried that a proposal to bring the way pensions are calculated in the public sector in line with those in the private sector would leave teachers poorer.

"Our wages our low and until now the advantage we had was that our pensions were calculated on the basis of the last six months of our career, which compensated a bit. But today, they're talking about (basing calculations on) the last 25 years, which could make our pensions fall by between 500 and 900 euros ($550-1,100) a month on average," he said.

- More chaos ahead -

Hospital workers, firefighters, students and "yellow vest" anti-government protesters also took part in Tuesday's rallies, reflecting the wide degree of dissatisfaction with Macron's policies half-way through his mandate.

Striking workers blocked seven petrol refineries but the government said there had been no impact on petrol supplies.

Meanwhile, public transport in the capital remained at a near standstill, with only two of 16 metro lines running as normal, nine completely closed and suburban trains also heavily disrupted.

The head of commuter trains at state railway company SNCF, Alain Krakovitch warned Tuesday that he expected the chaos to continue "until the end of the week" but some labour leaders have vowed to fight through until Christmas.

"Pensions are the glue of all discontent," the leader of the hardline CGT union Philippe Martinez told France 2 television.