France waits on Macron as pension strike stretches on

Paris (AFP) –


French union leaders upped their calls on Monday for President Emmanuel Macron to give ground on a planned pension overhaul, despite signs that support is flagging for a gruelling transport strike now in its 26th day.

Macron will address the nation Tuesday in his annual New Year's Eve address, having largely left it to his government to defend one of the most contested reforms of his term.

He could use the occasion to signal further concessions, after Paris Opera dancers were told over the weekend that the reform would apply only to new recruits from January 2022.

"It's obvious that his project is coming apart," Yves Veyrier of the Force Ouvriere union told France Info radio on Monday.

"You can see that it doesn't work for different sectors, whether it's pilots, firefighters, Opera dancers," he said, reiterating his demand that Macron drop the project outright.

The transport strike is now the longest since the mid-1980s, and has cast a pall over the holidays, snarling daily commutes in big cities like Paris and spelling travel misery for thousands over Christmas.

Half of the country's high-speed TGV trains were cancelled Monday, with more severe disruptions for regional trains.

But rail operator SNCF said just 7.1 percent of employees were on strike, including a third of train drivers, the lowest rate since the strike was kicked off on December 5.

And in Paris, only two of the 16 metro lines were shut down completely -- though most others were offering only minimal service, and only during morning or evening rush hours.

"It's starting to get tiring, we're tired," said Julie, a real estate employee at the Saint-Lazare station in Paris.

"At the same time we support the movement," she acknowledged. "But it's tiring."

- New Year's doubts -

The strike, which has already upended Christmas travel plans for thousands, is also likely to crimp New Year's festivities.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said nearly 100,000 police would be on duty nationwide on New Year's Eve to prevent drunken driving as more revellers get around by car.

In Paris, 250,000 to 300,000 people usually gather on the Champs-Elysees to ring in the new year, with the city's 16 metro lines open -- and free -- all night.

But this year just two metro lines will run, and only until 2:15 am, though transit operator RATP vowed to step up night bus services.

The government and unions are set to hold talks again on the reform, which would scrap 42 separate pension schemes into a single points-based system, on January 7.

But labour leaders have already called a fresh day of mass demonstrations for January 9, in particular against a new "pivot age" of 64 that workers would have to reach for a full pension, two years beyond the official retirement age.

There have been signs of progress in specific sectors, with the government offering concessions to police and firefighters as well as the Opera dancers.

The main French pilots union SNPL also last week cancelled planned strike action on January 3 following talks with the government.