Strikes, protests as French unions seek momentum to halt pension reform

Reuters Paris, Ile-de-France, France Dec 17, 2019, 04.20 PM(IST)

File photo. Photograph:( AFP )

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French trade unions crippled transport and gathered for mass protests on Tuesday, in a redoubled effort to force President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned pension reform by Christmas

With a nationwide movement of rolling strikes and protests having started to tail off as it enters a second week, unions were hoping for a new jolt to regain momentum by bringing hundreds of thousands of demonstrators back out onto the street.

Former investment banker Macron has said he wants to streamline the Byzantine state pension system with its tangle of special privileges, and use incentives to prod people to work until 64, instead of the average retirement age now of 62.

Eight of Paris' 14 metro lines were closed and the rest had a limited service, apart from two lines that run automated trains. Suburban commuter trains were heavily disrupted. Roads were thick with pedestrians and the streets crammed with bicycles and electric scooters as people tried to get to work.

The unions and Macron are each hoping to push the other to back down before Christmas, with the prospect that continuing strikes over the holiday would alienate an increasingly frustrated public.

"It wasn't me that started the pension reform, but I feel like I've been taken hostage. It's frustration turning to annoyance," said Johan Boyet, caught in the morning commute on Paris's central Boulevard Haussmann.

The state railway operator, SNCF, urged travellers not to show up at stations hoping to travel, with 80 percent of trains out of action in the region around Paris. At some stations in the past two weeks, police and security guards had to stop commuters trying to fight their way onto overcrowded trains.

"Passengers are tired, our employees who aren't striking are tired," the head of SNCF in the Paris region, Alain Krakovitch told BFM TV. "My responsibility is to spread the word to avoid putting passengers in an unsafe situation."

Morning traffic queues in the Paris area totalled 300 km, though congestion subsided to normal by the end of the morning rush, with many workers having set off early or stayed home.

Numbers turning out for protests have waned since the start of the standoff but unions forecast a big turnout on Tuesday, with all the major unions taking part in the same demonstration for the first time.

Opponents of the pension reform have been buoyed by the departure of the government's pension reform tsar, Jean-Paul Delevoye. He stepped down on Monday after it emerged he had failed to publicly declare more than a dozen posts he held in addition to his main job.

The unions are seeking to make a major show of force on Tuesday, because as Christmas approaches, the risk increases that the strikes could backfire. Strikes have already disrupted Christmas shopping.

A survey by pollster Ifop published on Monday in the Figaro newspaper showed that 55% of people believed it was unacceptable for the strikes to continue over the holiday.