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Union boss defiant on France's longest strike in decades

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Paris (AFP)

The boss of a hardline French trade union on Friday vowed to press on with a strike that has crippled transport in Paris for the past three weeks and is now the longest-lasting such action since the 1980s.

The strike against pension reforms championed by President Emmanuel Macron began on December 5 and has cast a long shadow over celebrations in France for Christmas and the New Year.

Now on day 23, the union stoppage is longer than the notorious 22-day strike of the winter of 1995 under late president Jacques Chirac against welfare cutbacks which forced the then government into a U-turn.

The longest transport strike in France lasted for 28 days, also over Christmas, in 1986 and early 1987. Calls by Macron and others for a Christmas truce have gone unheeded.

"It's a strong movement and still supported by public opinion," said Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the CGT union as he visited picketing workers at a bus depot.

He lashed out at Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who has said he wants no confrontation with the strikers, accusing him of not being true to his word.

"The government shows how agitated it is with this kind of conception of social dialogue," said Martinez.

- No end in sight -

The strike was still paralysing transport in Paris on Friday, day the French capital should be crammed with shoppers seeking post-Christmas bargains or preparing for the New Year.

There appears to be no end in sight to the current movement with talks between the government and unions only set to resume on January 7 and major demonstrations planned two days later.

Just two two driverless metro lines were working normally Friday and five lines were completely shut down. National rail operator SNCF said six out of every 10 high-speed TGV trains were running.

SNCF said in a statement that while 8.5 percent of its total employees were on strike, 38.8 percent of drivers were not working. It said just 35 percent of scheduled TGVs would be working on New Year's Day and 50 percent on January 2.

"I feel like the government is even more cornered than it was in 1995, so we are heading towards a deadlock with the government eventually winning the conflict but with a lot of collateral damage," said Bernard, a pensioner, as he waited for a train at Montparnasse station in Paris.

Another passenger, Audrey, a saleswoman, added that she was in favour of the strike. "They want their voices to be heard, and, unfortunately, there is no other way. Of course there are elections, but it's not enough."

Union activists also blocked four depots of Paris buses -- which have largely kept running in the strikes with a much reduced service -- early Friday before being dispersed peacefully by Paris police, the local authorities said.

The unions are demanding that the government drops a plan to merge 42 existing pension schemes into a single, points-based system.

The overhaul would see workers in certain sectors -- including the railways -- lose early retirement benefits.

The government says the pension overhaul is needed to create a fairer system.

Macron is due to address the nation for a traditional New Year address on December 31 and his words will be watched closely for any sign the government is prepared to water down the reform.

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