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French government, unions to meet over pension strike impasse

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Paris (AFP)

The French government and labour unions will face off on Wednesday over a pensions overhaul, 14 days into a crippling transport strike that is hurting businesses, wearing out commuters and casting a shadow over holiday plans.

After hundreds of thousands took to the streets on Tuesday, both sides stood firm ahead of a series of meetings, with government officials having said they are ready to negotiate.

Union leaders have vowed to continue their action into the new year as the government defended its plan to forge the country's 42 pension schemes into a single, points-based system.

With attitudes appearing to be hardening, the hardline CGT union claimed it had cut electricity to tens of thousands of homes in the Gironde department in the southwest and the cities of Lyon, Nantes and Orleans on Tuesday, and about 2,000 households in Paris.

At a meeting late Tuesday, four unions including the CGT decided to continue their action, which has wreaked havoc on public transport in Paris and other cities, hobbled regional and international trains, and grounded planes on some strike days.

The unions urged their members to take "local actions" throughout the Christmas holidays, and vowed there would be no letup unless the reform plan is withdrawn.

Critics say the overhaul could force millions of people to work beyond the official retirement age of 62 -- one of the lowest in Europe -- by setting a "pivot age" of 64 for a full pension.

The government insists the new system will be fairer and more transparent, improving pensions for women and low earners in particular.

"My determination, and that of the government and the majority, is total," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told parliament on the eve of Wednesday's talks.

- 'Reprehensible' sabotage -

On Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron named a new pensions chief, Laurent Pietraszewski, to lead fresh talks with the unions. His predecessor was forced to resign when it emerged he had failed to declare income alongside his government salary.

Some 615,000 people took part in more than 100 rallies countrywide on Tuesday, according to the interior ministry.

The CGT put the figure at three times that, with teachers, hospital workers and other public employees joining transport workers in revolt.

Police fired tear gas in Paris after protesters hurled projectiles, and arrested 30 people in the French capital where some 76,000 turned out for the third major march since the strike began on December 5.

Ecology Minister Elisabeth Borne condemned Wednesday what she described as "reprehensible" electricity cuts and road blockades, saying five clinics and a fire station were left without power in Lyon on Tuesday.

Those responsible "will obviously be prosecuted," she said.

Strike organisers are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when the government to back down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail stoppages just before Christmas.

Commuters in Paris and other big cities have borne the brunt of the transport stoppages so far, but holiday travel plans are now at risk.

National rail operator SNCF said Tuesday that it would assure a seat for each passenger who bought a holiday ticket on high-speed TGV trains for the coming weekend, though many will face time and date changes, and disruptions are still expected on regional lines.

The Eurostar and Thalys international trains have also seen their services slashed.

In Paris, only half of the 16 metro lines were running Wednesday, with most of the rest offering limited services.

About 62 percent of respondents to a poll for the RTL broadcaster said they support the strike but 69 percent said they wanted a Christmas "truce".

Businesses are already feeling the impact, with industry associations reporting turnover losses of 30 to 60 percent from a year earlier, in a period that is usually the busiest of the year.

The strike was costing the economy about 400 million euros ($445 million) a day, according to a calculation by the CPME confederation of small and midsize enterprises.

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