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On Day 29, French rail strike makes history

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Paris (AFP)

A labour walkout that has frustrated Paris commuters and marooned thousands of holiday travellers in France dragged into its 29th day on Thursday, becoming the country's longest continuous railway strike with no end in sight.

The standoff over the government's plan to merge 42 pension schemes into a single, points-based system has seen workers at the state-owned SNCF railway company and Paris' RATP public transport operator down tools since December 5.

Hundreds of thousands of strikers and their supporters have turned out for three mass rallies in recent weeks. Rail workers were joined by teachers, hospital workers and other public-sector employees angry about the overhaul, which they fear will leave pensioners poorer.

The previous longest SNCF strike, over salary and working conditions, lasted for 28 days in 1986 and early 1987.

The latest action has crippled public transport, particularly in Paris and its outskirts, and severely disrupted regional and long-distance trains, with thousands having to cancel or modify their plans for the year-end holidays.

Workers on strike forfeit their salary, and by Thursday the participation rate had dropped to under seven percent of the SNCF workforce -- the lowest since the protest started.

The levels are higher among some categories, with about a third of train drivers off work.

Two days have been set aside for fresh negotiations starting on Tuesday next week, followed by another day of mass mobilisation called by unions for January 9.

As many Parisians returned to work Thursday after their holiday breaks, the transport situation remained bleak, with suburban trains slashed and only two metro lines out of 16 -- the only driverless ones -- providing normal service.

Regional and intercity trains, too, were severely affected and the SNCF said international lines including the Eurostar and Thalys services were again "disrupted".

- A 'provocation' -

In his New Year's address, President Emmanuel Macron vowed not to back down from the plan that would require many to work longer to earn a full pension.

The president's insistence prompted Philippe Martinez, leader of the hardline CGT union, to call for strikes "everywhere" starting next week, "in the public and the private sector".

The government says the pension overhaul is needed to create a fairer system. But workers object to the inclusion of a so-called pivot age of 64 which people would have to work until to earn a full pension -- two years beyond the official retirement age.

Energy workers have also called for a three-day blockade of the country's oil refineries and fuel depots starting January 7, raising the spectre of petrol shortages.

Deputy Economy Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher warned Thursday that such action would be "illegal".

Opposition parties, meanwhile, were outraged after Jean-Francois Cirelli, head of French operations for the US asset management giant BlackRock, was awarded the Legion of Honour this week.

Critics fear the new pension system will effectively encourage the growth of US-style private pension funds.

"The awarding of the Legion of Honour to Jean-Francois Cirelli is a provocation," said Fabien Roussel, head of the French Communist Party. "It reveals the close ties between Macron and the world of finance."

Blackrock has denied the claim, saying in a statement that "in no way have we sought to influence the reform of the pay-as-you-go retirement system."

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