French transport strike drags into Day 19, casts pall on Christmas

by Mari�tte Le Roux
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The strike by French train and metro drivers is casting a pall over many people's Christmas holiday plans

French train and metro drivers took their crippling transport strike into its 19th straight day Monday in a standoff with the government over pension reform, casting a pall over Christmas plans with many unable to reach loved ones.

Talks between the government and unions last week failed to find middle ground, and strikers vowed there would be no holiday truce unless the overhaul plan is scrapped.

Trade unions and others involved in the strike will meet with the government on January 7 to discuss the pension reforms, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe's office said Monday.

The talks are set to run through the month of January.

Starting on December 5, the strike has hit daily commuters hard -- especially around Paris and other large cities -- and is now impeding tens of thousands of ticket holders who had planned to spend the festive season with family or friends.

On Saturday and Sunday, the last weekend before Christmas, the SCNF rail operator provided half the usual number of TGV high-speed trains, a third of regional TER services, a quarter of inter-city trains, and one in five connecting Paris to its outer suburbs.

This sent thousands scrambling for alternative transport, with car rental agencies unable to meet the surge in demand.

Nor will there be reprieve for those staying in Paris from the stoppage that has slashed train and metro services and caused high levels of frustration on overcrowded carriages.

The SNCF has announced that on Tuesday evening, Christmas Eve, it will halt trains between Paris and its suburbs. Some lines will reopen Wednesday morning, others only on Thursday, meaning many people will have to cancel plans to meet up with friends or family for Christmas lunch.

- 'Historic error' -

Unions are angry about the government's plan to merge France's 42 pension schemes into a single points-based one, which would see some public employees -- notably railway staff -- lose early-retirement and other benefits.

The government insists the new system would be fairer and more transparent.

Workers are baulking particularly at 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.

President Emmanuel Macron issued an appeal on Saturday for a holiday truce, urging strikers to embrace "a spirit of responsibility" and for "collective good sense to triumph".

A poll by the IFOP agency published Sunday showed public backing for the action dropping by three percentage points, though 51 percent of respondents still expressed support or sympathy for the strikers.

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 -- a cherished holiday for many French people.

But their action 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.

Non-transport workers joined the protest Monday, shuttering at least one oil refinery and a petrol depot in the south, while others blocked a bus depot in the northwest.

In Paris, protesters briefly held up Metro Line 1 -- one of only two lines unaffected by the strike as they are driverless, unlike the other 14.

In recent days, electricity workers had also interrupted power to thousands of homes.

On Monday, the leader of the Force Ouvriere union, Yves Veyrier, insisted the pension reform was a "historic error" and must be "discarded".

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The strike by French train and metro drivers is casting a pall over many people's Christmas holiday plans

Striking workers demonstrated at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris against the govenrment's proposed pension overhaul

A new poll shows public backing for the strike has dropped by three percentage points, though 51 percent of respondents still expressed support or sympathy for the strikers