Date: Wed, 1 Jan 2020 12:05:54 +0100 (MET)

Paris, Jan 1, 2020 (AFP) - The leader of France's hardline CGT union on Wednesday urged all workers to join pension strikes that have crippled public transport over the past month, as a showdown with President Emmanuel Macron enters a second month.   In his New Year's address Tuesday Macron vowed not to back down on his plan to replace France's 42 separate pension schemes with a single system that would require people to work longer.

The government says the changes are necessary to make the system fairer for all and more sustainable but unions argue that workers, particularly in the public sector, will lose out.   Reacting to Macron's speech, CGT leader Philippe Martinez called for strikes "everywhere" from next week, both "in the public and the private sector".   "Faced with a self-satisfied president who thinks that everything is going fine in this country we have to send a stronger warning sign," he told BFM news channel.   "We're calling on all the French to mobilize, attend demonstrations and go on strike," he added.

The 28-day strike, which left thousands of travellers stranded over the Christmas holidays, is on course to exceed the longest transport strike to date in France, which lasted for 28 days in 1986 and early 1987.   Macron's New Year's address was closely watched for signs that the government's resolve might be weakening.    But while calling for a "rapid compromise" during a new round of negotiations with unions next week, Macron vowed that the reforms "will be carried out."

Reacting to his comments, Yves Veyrier, secretary-general of the Force Ouvriere (FO) Union, one of France's biggest, said: "I don't get the impression that there is much room for negotiation."   Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the France Unbowed (LFI) party, added on Twitter: "These are not (New Year) wishes but a declaration of war to the millions of French who refuse his reform."

Already another day of mass protests is set for January 9, when teachers, dockers, hospital workers and other public sector employees are expected to join transport workers by striking for the day.   Energy workers have also called for a three-day blockade of the country's oil refineries and fuel depots starting January 7, raising the spectre of petrol shortages.

But the strike participation rate is waning, with just 7.7 percent of employees at train operator SNCF on strike Tuesday, far below the levels seen when the protest began on December 5.   On Tuesday, musicians from the Paris Opera, whose employees enjoy a special retirement regime dating back to 1698, played a protest concert outside the Bastille Opera for several hundred passers-by.
Date: Fri, 27 Dec 2019 18:52:04 +0100 (MET)
By Stuart WILLIAMS

Paris, Dec 27, 2019 (AFP) - The head of a hardline French trade union on Friday vowed to press on with a crippling strike that has cast a shadow over Christmas celebrations, with the stoppages entering a fourth week and becoming the longest-lasting such action since the 1980s.   The strike against pension reforms championed by President Emmanuel Macron began on December 5 and has seen most of the Paris metro shut down ever since and only a fraction of inter-city trains running.   Now on day 23, the union stoppage is longer than the notorious 22-day strike of the winter of 1995 under late president Jacques Chirac against welfare cutbacks which forced the then government into a U-turn.

The longest transport strike in France lasted for 28 days, also over Christmas, in 1986 and early 1987. Calls by Macron and others for a holiday truce have gone unheeded.   "It's a strong movement and still supported by public opinion," said Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the CGT union as he visited picketing workers at a bus depot.   He lashed out at Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who has said he wants no confrontation with the strikers, accusing him of not being true to his word.   "The government shows how agitated it is with this kind of conception of social dialogue," said Martinez.

- No end in sight -
Transport in Paris remained paralysed on Friday, a day the French capital would normally be crammed with shoppers seeking post-Christmas bargains or preparing for the New Year.   There appears to be no end in sight to the current walkouts with talks between the government and unions only set to resume on January 7 and major demonstrations planned two days later.   Just two driverless metro lines worked normally Friday and five lines were completely shut down. National rail operator SNCF said six out of every 10 high-speed TGV trains were running.

SNCF said in a statement that while 8.5 percent of its total employees were on strike, 38.8 percent of drivers were not working.  It said just 35 percent of scheduled TGVs would be working on New Year's Day and 50 percent on January 2.   "I feel like the government is even more cornered than it was in 1995, so we are heading towards a deadlock with the government eventually winning the conflict, but with a lot of collateral damage," said Bernard, a pensioner, as he waited for a train at Montparnasse station in Paris.

Another passenger, Audrey, a saleswoman, said she was in favour of the strike. "They want their voices to be heard, and, unfortunately, there is no other way. Of course there are elections, but it's not enough."   New Year's Eve was also set to be affected with the driverless metro lines 1 and 14 the only ones working into the night, although more night buses were expected to run.   Buses have largely remained running, albeit with a much reduced service, but union activists blocked four Paris bus depots early Friday before being dispersed peacefully by Paris police, the local authorities said.

The unions are demanding the government drops a plan to merge 42 existing pension schemes into a single, points-based system.   The overhaul would see workers in certain sectors -- including the railways -- lose early-retirement benefits.    The government says the shake-up is needed make the system fairer.    But workers object to the inclusion of a so-called pivot age of 64 until which people would have to work to earn a full pension -- two years beyond the official retirement age.   Macron is due to give his traditional New Year address on December 31 and his words will be watched closely for any sign the government is prepared to water down the reform.
Date: Thu, 26 Dec 2019 17:41:59 +0100 (MET)
By Mariƫtte Le Roux

Paris, Dec 26, 2019 (AFP) - A transport stoppage that has caused daily travel misery for millions of people in France entered its 22nd day on Thursday, equalling the duration of a 1995 strike whose success against government reforms unions are hoping to repeat.

With no end in sight, train and metro transport was again severely disrupted in Paris and on regional lines, as railway workers stayed off the job to protest the government's plan to merge 42 existing pension schemes into a single, points-based system.   The overhaul would see workers in certain sectors -- including the railways -- lose early retirement benefits.   Talks between unions and the government last week failed to find common ground, and a new day of mass protest has been called for January 9 -- two days after negotiations are set to resume.

With some 42 percent of train drivers on strike, the SNCF rail company said half of its high-speed TGV trains were running Thursday, 20 percent of suburban trains in the larger Paris region, four out of 10 regional trains and a quarter of inter-city connections.   In Paris, only two of 16 metro lines -- the only driverless ones -- were running as usual, four were closed, and ten provided a much reduced service.   The government says the pension overhaul is needed to create a fairer system.

But workers object to the inclusion of a so-called pivot age of 64 until which people would have to work to earn a full pension -- two years beyond the official retirement age.   The labour action, which started on December 5, is taking a heavy toll on businesses, especially retailers, hotels and restaurants, during what should be one of the busiest periods of the year.   Industry associations have reported turnover declines of 30 to 60 percent from a year earlier, and the SNCF said Tuesday it had lost 400 million euros ($442 million) in potential earnings so far.   The strikers, too, are losing out, forfeiting their salary for days not worked.

The man leading the pension reform project, Laurent Pietraszewski, said Tuesday the government would be "willing to compromise" in the negotiations. But he insisted there will be no revisiting the plan to do away with special retirement regimes.   Some 200-300 people turned out Thursday for a rally in Paris in support of the striking railway workers.   The longest transport strike in France lasted for 28 days, also over Christmas, in 1986 and early 1987.
Date: Mon, 16 Dec 2019 10:21:01 +0100 (MET)
By Marie-Pierre FEREY

Paris, Dec 16, 2019 (AFP) - French commuters endured a twelfth day of misery on Monday as the government and unions traded blame for a crippling transport strike over a pensions overhaul that has put holiday travel plans at risk for thousands.   Some 630 kilometres (390 miles) of traffic jams clogged Paris and its suburbs during the morning rush hour, nearly double the average levels, as most metro lines were again closed or operating just a handful of trains.

Across France, just one in three high-speed TGV trains and one in four regional trains were running, though most cities were not enduring the chaos seen in the capital.   "Until now I've been working from home or taking my car," a man who gave his name as Francois told AFP at the Saint-Lazare station in Paris, saying he had left home at just before 5:00 am.   "But the car is no longer an option, because of the cost but also because it's exhausting."   Unions plan a fresh day of mass demonstrations on Tuesday and insist the government must abandon planned pension reforms that they say could force millions of people to work longer before retiring.

Mass walkouts are again expected by teachers, hospital workers and other public employees as well as by lawyers protesting over plans to introduce a single pension system that would do away with 42 separate regimes.   The government has said it is willing to negotiate, in particular a "pivot age" of 64 that would grant rights to a full pension, but has defended a key project of President Emmanuel Macron's wide-reaching reform drive.    "Going on strike is legitimate, but you can also respect events like the year-end festivities," Environment Minister Elisabeth Borne told France 2 television, saying it would be "irresponsible" of union leaders to "ruin vacations".

Rail operator SNCF has already warned that unless the strike ends in a few days, it will not have time to get service back to normal by December 25.   "We're going to try to make miracles happen" for the Christmas holidays that begin on Saturday, SNCF's Rachel Picard told the Parisien newspaper over the weekend.   "If the government drops its project and we start serious talks on how to improve the system... everything will be fine," Philippe Martinez of the hardline CGT union said Sunday.   "Otherwise, the strikers will decide on what to do on Thursday or Friday."
Date: Fri, 13 Dec 2019 16:41:23 +0100 (MET)
By Mariƫtte Le Roux and Joseph Schmid

Paris, Dec 13, 2019 (AFP) - French commuters gritted their teeth for a ninth day of public transport strikes Friday, with unions vowing to keep up their protest against a pension overhaul through the holidays unless the government backs down.   Officials have said they are ready to negotiate, with Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer meeting teachers' representatives on Friday to try and stave off another day of class shutdowns.   "It was an intense and frank meeting... but we still need details, and maintain our call to strike on Tuesday," Stephane Crochet of the SE-Unsa union said.

Unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when they forced a rightwing government to back down on pension reforms 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 Christmas plans may be compromised.   "Right now it's a catastrophe here, but we're hoping there will be a solution before Christmas," Frederic Masse, a foie gras producer at the huge Rungis wholesale food market south of Paris, told AFP on Friday.

The capital city was again choked by huge traffic jams as most metro lines remained shut, only a handful of buses and trams were running, and one in four TGV trains were cancelled.   "I'm sick of this, and I won't be able to keep working if it goes on," Zigo Makango, a 57-year-old security agent, told AFP onboard a bus in the Bobigny suburb northeast of Paris.   To get home at night Makango said he has to use taxis, but "my boss doesn't reimburse me for that".

- 'Historic reform' -
President Emmanuel Macron on Friday expressed his "solidarity" with people impacted by the strike, "but I want the government to continue its work" in forging a single pension system, a key campaign promise.   "It's a historic reform for the country," he told journalists at an EU summit in Brussels. 

The overhaul unveiled by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe would do away with 42 separate regimes, some of which offer early retirement and other benefits to public-sector employees such as train drivers, dockers and even Paris Opera employees.   But Philippe angered unions further 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.

They have called for new mass demonstrations for next Tuesday, the third since the action started on December 5 in the biggest show of strength in years by France's notoriously militant unions.   Philippe insisted on Twitter that "My door is open and my hand outstretched".   But Laurent Brun of the hard-line CGT union, the largest among public-sector workers including those at rail operator SNCF, has already warned "There won't be any Christmas truce" unless the government drops the plan entirely.

- France divided -
A poll released Thursday by the Elabe institute found France evenly divided on Philippe's plan, with 50 percent for and 49 percent against.  But 54 percent rejected the mooted 64-year cutoff for a full pension, and 54 percent supported the protest.

Staff at four of France's eight oil refineries were on strike Friday, affecting output and raising fears of shortages down the line.   And both Paris operas, the Garnier and the Bastille, again cancelled Friday performances and others through the weekend.   Macron's government insists the changes will make for a fairer system and help erase pension system deficits forecast to reach as much as 17 billion euros ($19 billion) by 2025.   The average French person retires at just over 60, years earlier than most in Europe or other rich OECD countries.
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