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French govt seeks breakthrough as strike enters 3rd week

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Paris (AFP)

A gruelling French transport strike over a planned pension reform entered its third week on Thursday, with little relief in sight as the government prepared to hold fresh talks with unions that remain adamantly opposed to the project.

Meetings with union leaders Wednesday failed to bring the two sides any closer, though President Emmanuel Macron has indicated he was "willing to improve" his plan for a single points-based system, a key campaign pledge.

But unions baulk in particular at a new "pivot age" of 64 that workers would have to reach to receive a full pension, beyond the official retirement age of 62.

They are banking on public support for the strike -- an Ifop poll released Thursday found six out of 10 respondents (61 percent) oppose the "pivot age."

Even the moderate CFDT, France's largest union, has called it a "red line," though it backs Macron's push to forge a single pension scheme out of 42 existing ones that offer early retirement to some groups of mainly public-sector workers.

Protesters again staged rallies across France on Thursday, with several hundreds marching from the Gare de Lyon in Paris.

"We're entering the crucial period of the mobilisation, just ahead of the year-end festivities," said Sophie, a teacher at the Paris protest.

"We have to show that we're not going to give up."

Grid operator Enedis said striking workers again interrupted power supply to some 18,000 homes in southern France, including Perpignan and Narbonne, and 12,000 homes in the northern city of Beauvais.

- No truce for Christmas -

Pressure mounted on the government this week when it had to scramble to replace the official overseeing the pension negotiations. Jean-Paul Delevoye was forced to resign after it emerged he had failed to declare more than 120,000 euros of income from outside work.

He now faces an inquiry into the omissions on his asset statements and potentially unlawful remuneration while occupying a government post, the Paris prosecutor's office announced Thursday.

The government has vowed it will press ahead with its reform, saying a single system will be fairer and more transparent, especially for women and low earners.

But unions claim the overhaul would effectively force millions of people to retire later or face curtailed payouts.

The strike by transport workers, who benefit from earlier retirement under the current system, is wreaking havoc on daily commutes in Paris in particular, and now looks set to jeopardise holiday travel plans.

Train operator SNCF announced massive cancellations of high-speed TGV trains for December 23 and 24, dashing hopes for a "Christmas truce" and forcing thousands of people to scramble for alternatives.

Six of the 16 Paris metro lines were not running at all Thursday and suburban rail lines remained severely disrupted, as were services on national lines.

Valerie Pecresse, president of the Ile-de-France region encompassing Paris, called on transport operator RATP to fully reimburse commuters for the mayhem since the strike started on December 5.

"And don't try telling me that some lines still have some trains, because the truth is that for everyone, this minimal service is basically nothing," she told RTL radio.

Several universities have cancelled or postponed year-end exams since students cannot get to testing centres, and both the Paris and Garnier operas -- whose workers also benefit from an early retirement scheme -- have dropped dozens of performances.

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