Fed-up French travellers face traffic chaos over festive period

by Boris CAMBRELENG
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Train operator SNCF warned that the traffic would be 'severely disrupted' over the festive weekend

Travellers across France scrambled on Saturday to begin their Christmas getaways with trains cancelled, roads jam-packed and nerves tested as a strike over a pension overhaul shows no signs of letting up.

Hopes of a holiday truce were dashed after talks between the government and union leaders this week failed to ease the standoff, with train operator SNCF warning the traffic would be "severely disrupted" over the festive period.

SNCF said its aim to allow 850,000 ticket holders to travel this weekend was being upheld -- but only half of its usual services were running.

"I'm upset, this strike is unbearable... The government must do something," said Jeffrey Nwutu Ebube, who was in the northern port town of Le Havre trying to find a way back home to the southern city of Toulouse, some 850 kilometres (530 miles) away.

Late Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron, called on the strikers to embrace a "spirit of responsibility" and for "collective good sense to triumph".

"I believe there are moments in the life of a nation when it is also good to call a truce to respect families and the lives of families," he said, speaking in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, where he is on a visit.

- 'Everything is full' -

Many stranded travellers have turned to car rental agencies or sharing platforms since the strike began on December 5, but the last-minute surge in demand meant vehicles were hard to come by.

"We tried other ways, BlaBlaCar, etc, but everything is full, everything is taken," said Jerome Pelletier, a manager in the textile industry.

President Macron wants to forge the country's 42 separate pension regimes into a single points-based system which the government says will be fairer and more transparent.

It would do away with schemes that offer early retirement and other advantages to mainly public-sector workers, not least train drivers who can retire as early as 52.

While some unions support a single system, almost all reject a new "pivot age" of 64 -- beyond the legal retirement age of 62 -- which workers would have to reach to get a full pension.

Macron will renounce the pension he will be entitled to as former president, the Elysee palace said Saturday.

He will also not take his seat on the Constitutional Court, of which former presidents are members for life and receive an allowance of 13,500 euros ($14,950) the Elysee added.

- Heavy toll on business -

The unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995 when the government backed down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail stoppages just before Christmas.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Thursday that talks had made progress and called on unions to lift the strike "so that millions of French can join their families for the end of this year".

Although the moderate UNSA union agreed, the hardline CGT and Force Ouvrier unions said they would not let up.

This weekend, the last for Christmas shopping, the RATP Paris train operator said metro services would be "heavily reduced" on Sunday with only two driverless metro lines working.

The protest is also taking a heavy toll on businesses, especially retail, during one of the busiest periods of the year, with industry associations reporting turnover declines of 30 to 60 percent from a year earlier.

Train operator SNCF warned that the traffic would be 'severely disrupted' over the festive weekend

The pension overhauls in France would do away with legacy schemes that offer early retirement