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France braces for major rallies, more transport disruptions as pension strike continues

File photo of French state-owned SNCF company worker on strike.
File photo of French state-owned SNCF company worker on strike. © Charles Platiau, REUTERS

France’s powerful trade unions plan to “reinvigorate” industrial action against President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms with nationwide demonstrations Thursday after talks between the government and union leaders earlier this week failed to break the deadlock.

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France’s embattled commuters faced another day of disruptions as the longest continuous transport strikes in modern French history entered its 36th day with demonstrations planned across the country.

Reporting from Montparnasse railway station in Paris, FRANCE 24’s Andrew Hilliar noted that Thursday would mark the fourth major day of protests since the strike was called December 5, with “all the major unions calling on workers in various sectors to come out and take part in the strikes and, of course, the protests. We’re seeing Paris métro workers, state railways workers to continue the strike, but also dock workers, health workers, teachers, lawyers, pilots not just over pension reforms but over their own working conditions.”

Earlier this week, talks between the French government and unions aimed at ending the transport strike failed to break the deadlock over one of Macron’s most hotly contested retirement reform proposals.

As the standoff expanded to oil refineries, raising fears of petrol shortages, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said that both sides needed to "budge a little".

While insisting the reforms would not be withdrawn, he made conciliatory noises about the government's proposals to extend the minimum age for receiving a full pension to 64 from 62.

‘Pivotal age’

The strikers believe that the new points system and calculation method for their pensions would take their whole career into account, rather than just its final six months. They fear this would lower their pensions in many cases.

They're not satisfied by what the government is calling the "pivotal age"; this is a formula that would allow people to retire at 62, but would encourage them to work for two more years to get a full pension.

Previously, train drivers retired at an average age of 53 years. Other SNCF employees retired at around 58.

The pivotal age formula has been rejected by all trade unions, however. It's also disapproved of by a majority of the French public, according to opinion polls.

“Some of the unions, the more hardline unions such as the CGT for example, they’re demanding that the French government withdraw the plan all together, they’re not willing to compromise,” explained Hilliar. “Some of the more moderate unions such as the CFDT, they’re willing to compromise over the pivot age and with the government making overtures to that effect, some say the government might be hoping to reach a separate agreement with the CFDT to try to break the backbone of the strikes.”

Compromise is key

Some MPs from Macron's ruling Republique En Marche party have proposed an alternative. One of them, Hubert Julien-Laferrière, says the pivotal age formula can't be applied to everyone:

"We need a pivotal age that can adapt to the different types of careers and to the hardest jobs. Because today, we can observe a difference in the life expectancy, depending on the person's career and occupation. After 60 years of age, the difference in the life expectancy can be as much as a decade".

The areas the government seems ready to enact a compromise on are the issues of elderly people's employment and the difficult of some occupations. It's expected to announce a draft plan on these issues within two weeks.

New negotiations have been arranged for Friday on the pension funding issue. However, further demonstrations are currently arranged for the coming weekend.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS and AP)

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