Little Christmas cheer as French transport strike enters fourth week

by Mari�tte Le Roux
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Unions are protesting the government's plan to reform France's pension system

Christmas Day brought no respite for travellers in France as a transport strike entered its fourth week, ruining the plans of thousands wanting to celebrate with loved ones.

Many people scrambled at the last minute to make alternative arrangements as the protest against pension reform saw thousands of trains cancelled or delayed -- and taxis, ride-sharing services and car rental agencies unable to make up the shortfall.

Only a fraction of high-speed and inter-city trains ran on Christmas Eve and even fewer were operating on the holiday itself. The main train stations in Paris were closed for the morning with suburban connections slashed and just two out of 16 metro lines -- the only driverless ones -- providing any service.

President Emmanuel Macron had called for a holiday truce, but negotiations between the government and unions last week failed to find common ground.

And strikers vowed there would be no halt to the strike during the festive period unless officials scrap plans to merge the current 42 pension schemes into one.

Transport on Thursday will remain very disrupted, with only one in two TGV high speed trains running, five Paris metro lines closed and regional and suburban train services also impaired.

Talks are scheduled to resume only on January 7.

The government says the overhaul is needed to create a fairer pension system.

But workers baulk 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.

- 'A moment of grace' -

Others, especially railway workers, are angry at plans to do away with special regimes that make early retirement provisions for categories of employees who work unusual hours or do physically demanding jobs.

Paris Opera workers, who can retire at 42, are among those on strike.

On Tuesday, about 40 dancers in white tutus staged an elegant protest in Paris, performing Swan Lake to passers-by on the steps outside the opera house with banners warning: "Culture in danger".

"We wanted to offer a moment of grace," said dancer Alexandre Carniato.

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.

But the 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.

- 'A turning point' -

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 -- 21 days by Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the Info'Com-CGT union presented a cheque for 250,000 euros ($277,000) to striking workers from the RATP Paris rail service, from a fund containing public contributions.

"This is a turning point," train driver Raffi Kaya told AFP at a union-organised Christmas lunch for strikers at Paris' Gare de Lyon train station.

"It is starting to hurt financially. But we have gone too far to stop now."

And that means no pause for the New Year holiday.

"You don't stop when you've lost 20 or 25 days of salary just because it's the New Year holiday," said Laurent Brun, head of the rail workers' union, Tuesday.

He also hinted at "several weeks of conflict" if the government "wants to force things through."

The man leading the pension reform project, Laurent Pietraszewski, said Tuesday the government would be "willing to compromise" in the negotiations, set to last throughout January.

But he insisted there will be no revisiting the plan to do away with special retirement regimes.

An opinion 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 strike, which is set to also cast a pall over New Year's celebrations and the first working weeks of 2020.

burs-mlr/boc/spm

Unions are protesting the government's plan to reform France's pension system

The transport strike entered its 21st day Wednesday

Trains and metros in Paris have been slashed to a minumum