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Unions tighten screws as French government to unveil pension plan

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Paris (AFP)

French unions tightened the screws Wednesday with a seventh day of transport strike as the government prepared to unveil the details of a pension reform plan workers fear will leave them poorer.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is set to unveil the minutiae of the proposed overhaul at midday (1100 GMT), but already warned of a lengthy battle ahead as some 340,000 protesters took to the streets Tuesday.

Unions have vowed to resist until the plan is withdrawn.

The industrial action has paralysed public transport in Paris and other main cities, disrupted national rail services and grounded many planes.

It 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.

The official retirement age in France is 62 -- one of the lowest among developed countries, and fiercely defended by the labour force.

The government insists the reform, which will unite 42 pension regimes for workers in different sectors into a single plan, will make the retirement system fairer.

After months of negotiations and consultations, Jean-Paul Delevoye, whom Macron entrusted with leading the reform project, announced initial recommendations in July -- suggestions which angered France's famously militant unions.

- 'No magic announcements' -

Among other things, he suggesting scrapping the more advantageous pension provisions enjoyed by some professions -- including public transport and utilities workers, sailors, notaries, and Paris Opera performers.

Delevoye said the pension amount should no longer be calculated on a private sector worker's 25 best earning years, or six months for public servants, as is the case today.

Instead, all workers will earn the same number of pension "points", with the same value, for every day worked over their careers.

It will still be possible to retire at 62, but workers may have to work longer if they want to garner the maximum number of points.

BFM television reported that the government, in the face of public anger, would work concessions into its proposed plan to be announced after hours of meetings between Philippe and cabinet ministers that ran into the early morning hours.

These would mainly involve staggering the implementation of the changes.

People born before 1975 would keep their pensions as they are, those after 1975 would see the new rules apply to them starting 2037 (when they turn 62), and new job entrants would work under the new regime as from 2022, according to BFM's information

There would also be a delay in phasing out the special, early retirement provision that exists for France's thousands of railworkers.

Philippe has cautioned there would be "no magic announcements" to halt the protests, which brought 339,000 people out on the streets around France Tuesday and some 800,000 on the first day of the labour action last Thursday, according to official estimates.

They included teachers, hospital workers, firefighters, students, and members of the "yellow vests" anti-government movement which have been holding weekly rallies for the last year that have sometimes turned violent.

- It's not over -

Striking workers blocked seven of France's eight petrol refineries Tuesday but the government said there had been no impact on petrol supplies.

Public transport in the capital remained at a near standstill Wednesday, causing much frustration for working commuters and tourists alike.

Nine out of Paris' 16 metro lines were offline, five offered reduced services, and the only two driverless lines kept to their usual schedule though with a high risk of congestion, according to operator RATP. There were also fewer buses.

Trains linking Paris to its suburbs were running a minimum service, and commuters desperate to get to work squeezed into overfull carriages from the early hours.

The head of national rail traffic operator SNCF, Alain Krakovitch, warned the chaos that has also hobbled high-speed and international trains would likely continue "until the end of the week". But some labour leaders have vowed to fight through until Christmas.

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

Their labour action has revived memories of three-week-long strikes over pension reform that crippled France in 1995, forcing the centre-right government of the day to reverse course.

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