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Macron ‘willing to improve’, but not drop, pension reform plans

French President Emmanuel Macron speaking on December 3, 2019.
French President Emmanuel Macron speaking on December 3, 2019. Peter Nicholls, REUTERS

French President Emmanuel Macron will not drop his plan for a single points-based pension system, but is “willing to improve” it in the face of fierce union resistance, an official in the presidency said Wednesday, as French officials met with union leaders hoping to end an impasse over a hotly contested pensions overhaul, 14 days into a crippling transport strike that is casting a shadow over holiday travel plans.

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“The president will not abandon the project nor water it down, though he is willing to improve it,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official added that "an improvement is possible concerning the pivot age” of 64 at which a worker would qualify for a full pension – a particular target of union ire that has sparked two weeks of massive public transport strikes.

Macron hoped talks with union leaders will allow “a pause” in the strike so people can travel for the holidays, the official added.

However, after talks with Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, the head of the moderate CFDT union, Laurent Berger, said they remained "still very far from an agreement".

The government is struggling to win over support for its points-based pension system, which would eliminate 42 separate schemes that offer early retirement for many public-sector workers.

"We're here to sound the alarm about the situation in the country, its discontent," Philippe Martinez of the CGT union, France's second largest, said after his meeting with the premier.

An Elabe poll released Wednesday found that six in 10 respondents (57 percent) opposed the project, an increase of eight points from a week earlier, with just 43 percent approving.

The government has come under fire in particular over a "pivot age" of 64 for a full pension, which critics say could force millions to work beyond the official retirement age of 62 – one of the lowest in Europe.

Philippe insists the new system will be more transparent and fairer, in particular for women and low earners, by raising the minimum guaranteed pension to €1,000 a month from 2022. It would also help plug a deficit forecast to reach up to €17 billion by 2025 if nothing is done.

Public support for strike holds amid chaos

About 62 percent of respondents to an opinion poll published Tuesday by the broadcaster RTL 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.

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.

Some 615,000 people took to the streets across France on Tuesday, the third day of mass demonstrations since the strike began on December 5.

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.

Heavy toll

National rail operator SNCF said 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.

Just one in three TGVs were running Wednesday and only half of the 16 métro lines in the capital.

To help keep commuters moving, the government decided to allow bus drivers to work an extra two hours per day up to Christmas eve, a move which one transport union described as nothing but "a strike-breaking" measure.

More disruptions are expected Thursday, including for the Eurostar and Thalys trains serving London and Brussels.

Both the Garnier and Bastille Opéras in Paris – whose employees benefit from a pension system that would be eliminated in the overhaul – again were forced to cancel performances Wednesday.

The protest is taking a heavy toll on businesses during one of the busiest periods of the year, with industry associations reporting turnover losses of 30 to 60 percent from a year earlier.

Geoffroy Roux de Bezieux, head of the Medef employers' association, told journalists after meeting with Philippe on Wednesday that he asked for financial relief for businesses impacted by the strike.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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