French govt meets as unions vow to harden pension strike

Joseph Schmid and Mariette le Roux
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"We're getting dozens of emails from supporters every day," Philippe Martinez, centre, of France's CGT labour union said during a rally in Paris on Friday

Top French officials met Friday to hash out their strategy ahead of fresh pension overhaul talks with unions who have threatened wider protests alongside a crippling transport strike now in its fifth week.

"I urge all union leaders to accept the hand offered by the prime minister so that together we can find a compromise," Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said while meeting Paris shop owners hurt by the strike.

The public transport headache has taken a big bite out of holiday earnings for shops in the capital, with revenues down 30 to 40 percent, according to the CMA business federation.

Hardline unions are fighting an overhaul that would rationalise France's 42 separate pension regimes into a single points-based system which they say would require millions of people to work beyond the official retirement age of 62.

President Emmanuel Macron made pension reform a key plank of his election campaign, saying it would be fairer and more transparent, particularly for low earners and women.

But unions are vehemently opposed to the proposed "pivot age" of 64 until which people would have to work to receive a full pension, and the loss of early-retirement provisions for some sectors -- including the railways.

The CGT union has called a four-day blockade of fuel refineries and depots starting Tuesday, when talks between unions and the government are to resume.

Two unions representing pilots and cabin crew at Air France have called a strike for next week, as have lawyers, physiotherapists and other self-employed workers who have separate -- and more advantageous -- pension schemes.

"We're getting dozens of emails from supporters every day," CGT chief Philippe Martinez said during a rally outside a Paris department store Friday.

- War of wills -

In a New Year's Eve address Macron insisted that he would push ahead with the reform, which will be presented to his cabinet on January 22 ahead of a parliamentary debate.

But he promised that people with arduous jobs would still be allowed to retire earlier -- a key sticking point in the talks with unions.

Macron is hoping to win the battle of public opinion, betting that support for the strike will falter the longer the disruption persists.

"I support them... but the problem is that this shouldn't impact all the transport lines," Sonia Bergoz, a 59-year-old nurse, told AFP at the Aulnay-sous-Bois suburban train station northeast of Paris.

"You can't do anything, go to work... you can't even go out. I'm getting tired of it," she said.

However, a new poll published Friday showed a majority of 61 percent still support the strike, although that was five points lower than a December 19 survey, according to pollster Odoxa.

Unions have called another day of mass demonstrations for Thursday, when teachers, hospital workers and others are expected to join the strike.

"The government is engaged in a battle of attrition... We are playing the exact opposite game -- we will continue to be strong," said Eric Challal, a 35-year-old employee at rail operator SNCF who has been on strike since December 5.

But he conceded that losing 30 days' worth of pay and with little prospect of any change was starting to be a concern.

Asked at the Gare du Nord station in Paris how much longer he could hold out, he told AFP: "I don't really know."

"But for now, we are gritting our teeth," he said as he gathered with other strikers.

Although the number of strikers at the SNCF and Paris transport operator RATP has dropped sharply, travellers continue to suffer extensive service disruptions.

Most Paris metro lines operate only at rush hours, and a third of the country's high-speed TGV trains were cancelled on Friday.

It has become the longest continuous train strike in French history, as well as the longest by Paris Opera dancers and other employees who enjoy special pension provisions.

So far, 63 performances at the Opera's historic Garnier and modern Bastille stages have been cancelled, costing the company more than 12 million euros ($13.4 million) in lost ticket sales.

Jean-Marie Monnier, 57, said his cafe Le Rallye du Nord has seen turnover "at least 50 percent" lower than a year ago, a loss he said was "comparable to the attacks" of 2015, when jihadist strikes scared many tourists out of Paris.