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French public on our side, says defiant union boss four weeks into strike

Philippe Martinez, the mustachioed head of the CGT trade union, pictured at a protest against pension reform in Paris earlier this month.
Philippe Martinez, the mustachioed head of the CGT trade union, pictured at a protest against pension reform in Paris earlier this month. Eric Gaillard, REUTERS

The head of a hardline French trade union on Friday vowed to press on with a crippling strike that has dampened the festive season, with the stoppages becoming the longest-lasting such action since the 1980s.

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The strike against pension reforms championed by President Emmanuel Macron began on December 5 and has seen most of the Paris metro shut down ever since and only a fraction of inter-city trains running.

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

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 holiday truce have gone unheeded.

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

"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.

His union announced this week it had collected 1 million euros in donations from citizens seeking to support the strikers, who have gone without pay since Dec. 5.

According to an Ifop poll published two days before Christmas, 51% of the French supported the strike, against 34% who opposed it. Other surveys have given higher support for the industrial action.

‘There is no other way’

Transport in Paris remained paralysed on Saturday, a day the French capital would normally be crammed with shoppers seeking post-Christmas bargains or preparing for the New Year.

Just two driverless metro lines worked normally 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, said 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."

New Year's Eve was also set to be affected with the driverless metro lines 1 and 14 the only ones working into the night, although more night buses were expected to run.

Buses have largely remained running, albeit with a much reduced service, but union activists blocked four Paris bus depots early Friday before being dispersed peacefully by Paris police, the local authorities said.

>> Why France’s ‘unsustainable’ pension system may well be sustainable

The unions are demanding 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, while millions more are set to see their pensions reduced.

The government says the shake-up is needed make the system fairer, for women and low earners in particular.

But workers object to the inclusion of a so-called pivot age of 64 until which people would have to work to earn a full pension – two years beyond the official retirement age.

Macron is due to give his 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.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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