French strikes fizzle, but protests take a radical turn

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Paris (AFP)

The longest transport strike in France in decades appeared to be petering out on Monday, with most Paris metro and national train services back up and running, offering relief to weary commuters.

But while the return to work marked a tentative victory for President Emmanuel Macron, who has refused to back down in the dispute over pension reforms, French media and experts warned that opposition to the overhaul was far from over -- and taking an increasingly radical turn.

On the 47th straight day of strikes over the government's plans to fuse France's 42 different pension schemes into one, 11 out of 16 metro lines were operating as normal or nearly normal, according to the Paris public transport operator RATP.

National rail operator SNCF announced Sunday that nearly all suburban, regional and high-speed TGV trains would also be running.

- Train drivers feel pinch -

In Paris, the focal point of the strikes that have caused nearly seven weeks of travel misery, the biggest union in RATP said Saturday it was suspending its strike action "to regain strength".

Unsa-RATP representative Laurent Djebali told AFP that many strikers had voted to resume work "for financial reasons" after going without pay for weeks, but he was adamant that there was "no question" of ending the strike altogether.

The biggest union at the SNCF, the militant CGT, also struck a defiant note in the face of the flagging strike participation.

On Monday, hundreds of CGT members gathered near the Palace of Versailles, the former seat of French kings, to march on a foreign investment summit being hosted by Macron.

The dispute is "far from over", a spokesman for the union's rail wing, CGT-Cheminots, said at the weekend, predicting that many train drivers would walk out again on Friday, when the pension reform bill is officially unveiled.

- 'Brutal minority' -

The industrial action had already begun to run out of steam following a string of concessions by the government, particularly the withdrawal of its controversial plan to increase the full-pension age to 64 from 62.

The concession was a key demand of France's biggest union, the moderate CFDT, which is broadly supportive of the shift to a new points-based retirement scheme and which promptly ditched its strike call.

But bitterness remains, with some opponents of the reforms resorting to the kind of radical tactics seen at the height of last year's "yellow vest" anti-government protests.

Critics of the changes to France's cherished pension system, one of the most generous in Europe, say they will force millions of people to work longer for a smaller retirement payout.

Macron, a former investment banker who came to power in 2017 on a pledge to make France more competitive, argues that the changes are necessary to keep the debt-ridden system afloat.

On Friday, he and his wife Brigitte had to be rushed briefly from a Paris theatre after protesters tried to burst in.

Earlier that day, activists from a more militant union marched on the CFDT, chanting slogans hostile to its leader Laurent Berger, seen by critics as too amenable to Macron's policies.

And on Saturday, one of Macron's favourite Paris restaurants, the Rotonde brasserie in the Montparnasse district, was targeted by arsonists.

Firefighters quickly put out the blaze, which followed several incidents of arson and destruction of public property during weekly demonstrations over the reforms held since December.

In an editorial asking "Is France still a democracy?" the Sud Ouest wrote that the incidents, while seemingly minor, marked "the bruised face of a country where a small but active, brutal minority is attempting to dictate the law".

"End of the dispute and growing violence," the conservative Le Figaro wrote in its front-page headline Monday.

- Robe-tossing -

Stephane Sirot, a historian of labour disputes, told AFP that while the strikes and demonstrations were fizzling, "the discontent remains as acute as ever", leading to more virulent forms of protest.

Some groups have used innovative methods to draw attention to their cause.

Striking lawyers have tossed their black robes in piles on the ground, teachers have done likewise with textbooks, and dancers and musicians from the Paris Opera, which has also been caught up in the standoff, have given several free open-air performances.

"The government is not done with this dispute," Sirot warned.

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