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French transport strike brings Christmas Eve woe

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Paris (AFP)

Christmas Eve in France was set to be marred by the nearly three-week standoff between French train drivers and the government over pension reforms.

Now in its 20th day, the walkout has ruined Christmas travel plans for tens of thousands of ticket holders unable to reach loved ones in time for Christmas Day on Wednesday.

Workers at the national SNCF and Parisian RATP rail and public transport companies have downed tools to protest at the government's plan to meld France's 42 pension schemes into a single points-based one, which would see some public employees lose certain privileges.

There will be no surprises under the Christmas tree for those keen to travel on Tuesday, with up to 40 percent of high-speed rail and express regional trains cancelled, along with up to 20 percent of other trains.

The SNCF has also announced that on Tuesday evening trains between Paris and its suburbs will be halted. Some lines will reopen Wednesday morning, others only on Thursday.

Laurent Brun of the hard-line CGT union, said strikers have a "set of plans to celebrate Christmas" together while maintaining action all week-long.

Talks between the government and unions last week failed to find middle ground, and strikers vowed there would be no holiday truce unless the pension overhaul plan was scrapped.

Trade unions and others involved in the strike will meet with the government on January 7 to discuss the pension reforms, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe's office said Monday. The talks are set to run through the month of January.

On Saturday and Sunday, the last weekend before Christmas, the SCNF provided half the usual number of TGV high-speed trains, a third of regional TER services, a quarter of intercity trains, and one in five connecting Paris to its outer suburbs.

Unions are angry about the government's plans, which would see some public employees -- notably railway staff -- lose early-retirement and other benefits.

The government insists the new system would be fairer and more transparent.

Unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995 when the government backed down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail stoppages just before Christmas -- a cherished holiday for many French people.

But their action is taking a heavy toll on businesses, especially retailers, hotels and restaurants, during what should be one of the busiest periods of the year.

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