French government ready to 'compromise' in pension standoff

by Mari�tte Le Roux and Joseph Schmid
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ome 615,000 people took to the streets across France on Tuesday, the third day of mass protests since the strike began on December 5

French officials met with union leaders Wednesday hoping to end an impasse over a hotly contested pensions overhaul, 14 days into a crippling transport strike that is casting a shadow over holiday travel plans.

President Emmanuel Macron is "willing to improve" the plan, his office said ahead of the meetings, but rejected a demand by unions to drop it outright.

However, after talks with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, the head of the moderate CFDT union, Laurent Berger, said they remained "still very far from an agreement."

The government is struggling to win over support for its points-based pension system, which would eliminate 42 separate schemes that offer early retirement for many public-sector workers.

"We're here to sound the alarm about the situation in the country, its discontent," Philippe Martinez of the CGT union, France's second largest, said after his meeting with the premier.

An Elabe poll released Wednesday found that six in 10 respondents (57 percent) opposed the project, an increase of eight points from a week earlier, with just 43 percent approving.

The government has come under fire in particular over a "pivot age" of 64 for a full pension, which critics say could force millions to work beyond the official retirement age of 62 -- one of the lowest in Europe.

Philippe insists the new system will be more transparent and fairer, in particular for women and low earners, by raising the minimum guaranteed pension to 1,000 euros ($1,100) a month from 2022.

It would also help plug a deficit forecast to reach up to 17 billion euros by 2025 if nothing is done.

- 'Ready to compromise' -

Pressure mounted against the government this week when it had to scramble to replace the top official overseeing the pension negotiations, who was forced to resign after it emerged he had failed to declare income from outside work.

Some 615,000 people took to the streets across France on Tuesday, the third day of mass demonstrations since the strike began on December 5.

Unions have warned they will continue the public transport strike through Christmas if necessary, something the government is hoping to avoid with the new round of talks, set to continue Thursday.

"Obviously we are ready to work on a compromise," government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said Wednesday.

Further train cancellations could spell more misery for commuters in Paris and other big cities who have borne the brunt of the transport stoppages so far, while also keeping people from travelling for the holidays.

National rail operator SNCF said it would assure a seat for each passenger who bought a holiday ticket on high-speed TGV trains for the coming weekend, though many will face time and date changes, and disruptions are still expected on regional lines.

Just one in three TGVs were running Wednesday and only half of the 16 metro lines in the capital.

To help keep commuters moving, the government decided to allow bus drivers to work an extra two hours per day up to Christmas eve, a move which one transport union described as nothing but "a strike-breaking" measure.

A Harris Interactive poll released Tuesday found that 69 percent of respondents wanted a Christmas "truce" -- though 62 percent also said they support the strike.

- Heavy toll -

Train operator SNCF has warned that it may now be too late to get services back to normal by December 25, and several universities have cancelled or postponed year-end exams.

More disruptions are expected Thursday, including for the Eurostar and Thalys trains serving London and Brussels.

Both the Garnier and Bastille Operas in Paris -- whose employees benefit from a pension system that would be eliminated in the overhaul -- again were forced to cancel performances Wednesday.

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

Geoffroy Roux de Bezieux, head of the Medef employers' association, told journalists after meeting with Philippe on Wednesday that he asked for financial relief for businesses impacted by the strike.

ome 615,000 people took to the streets across France on Tuesday, the third day of mass protests since the strike began on December 5

In Paris, only half of the 16 metro lines were running Wednesday, with most of the rest offering limited services

Retirement, work, income: key figures for older people in the EU

There were mass protests in Paris and elsewhere on Tuesday