Tensions mount over French transport strike

Lucile MALANDAIN and Clare BYRNE
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The strike has left many train stations deserted

Tensions between the French government and unions opposed to pension reforms mounted on the 11th day of a crippling transport strike Sunday, as each side blamed the other for the effect an extended dispute would have on Christmas plans for the French.

The pensions overhaul, unveiled this week by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, would fold France's 42 separate pension schemes -- including the early retirement schemes covering train drivers, dockers and several other professions -- into one system that requires people to work for longer.

Philippe particularly angered the unions by proposing a reduced payout for people who retire at the legal age of 62 instead of a new, so-called "pivot age" of 64.

In Paris Sunday, public transport remained at a near-standstill, with only two of the city's 16 metro lines operating and most national rail services cancelled.

The unions have announced a third day of mass protests for Tuesday, which is expected to attract tens of thousands of people from a range of professions, joining the transport workers on the streets.

The strike organisers are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when they forced a centre-right government to back down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail strikes just before Christmas.

The prospect of a protracted standoff has businesses fearing big losses during the crucial year-end festivities, and travellers worried that their holiday plans will fall through.

- Fears for Christmas travel -

Philippe told Le Parisien daily in an interview for its Sunday edition that the French, many of whom travel to be with family at Christmas, would not take kindly to being kept apart.

"Christmas is an important time," he said, calling on the unions to "assume their responsibilities".

He sought to downplay the scale of 11 days of industrial action, which have hit schools, key ports and oil refineries and starved retailers and restaurants of footfall.

"Things are not completely blocked but it's bothersome," he said.

The government has insisted the pension reforms are necessary to make the current indebted system, which is more favourable to public sector workers, fairer and more sustainable.

A poll in Le Journal du Dimanche weekly however showed 54 percent of the French either supporting the strikers or feeling sympathetic towards their cause, up from 46 percent before the strike began on December 5.

Only 30 percent of those polled opposed the strike outright.

Backed by the favourable polls, the train drivers have vowed not to budge unless the government withdraws the reforms.

Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the hardline CGT union, told BFMTV Sunday the transport strike could end before Christmas if the government pulled its reform plan.

"Otherwise, the strikers will decide what they have to do Thursday or Friday," he added.

But Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin, debating with Martinez on the same programme, stressed the plight of ordinary people struggling to commute to their jobs in Paris.

"The Republic cannot be subjected to blackmail by anyone," he said.

- 'It's very simple' -

Even France's moderate CFDT union has backed the action after the government's announcement that those who retire before the "pivot age" of 64 would not receive a full pension.

"It's very simple: for the CFDT to change its mind on this bill, the government must agree to withdraw the pivot age, that's all there is to it," CFDT leader Laurent Berger told Le Journal du Dimanche.

Berger, who supports the idea of moving to a single pension system, nevertheless reiterated that he was open to dialogue.

Philippe has struck a firm note, repeating that his "door is open" to the unions, with whom he plans more talks this week, while insisting that the government will stay its course.

In his Le Parisien interview, he backed the architect of the pensions reform, Jean-Paul Delevoye, who has been hit by allegations of a conflict of interest.

Delevoye failed to disclose several positions held since entering government to the state body for transparency in public office.

The French constitution prohibits members of the government from carrying out any professional activity in addition to their official functions.

While most of Delevoye's roles were on the boards of charities, he has had to pay back tens of thousands of euros in income earned from two positions, from which he has since resigned.

Philippe said he had "complete faith in Jean-Paul Delevoye's good intentions".