PM offer fails to halt France strike

AFP
A CRIPPLING French transport strike dragged into its 39th day despite the government's offer to withdraw the most contested measure of the pension reform plans.
AFP
PM offer fails to halt France strike
AFP

An advertising screen is set on fire during a demonstration in Paris on Saturday.

A CRIPPLING French transport strike dragged into its 39th day on Sunday despite the government’s offer to withdraw the most contested measure of the pension reform plans that sparked the protest.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Saturday he would drop plans to increase the official retirement age to 64 from 62 in an effort to end a strike which has paralyzed Paris and its suburbs, with bus, train and metro services all badly disrupted.

“I am willing to withdraw from the bill the short-term measure I had proposed,” said Philippe, prompting his boss French President Emmanuel Macron to dub the change “a constructive and responsible compromise.”

The more reformist trade unions — the FDT, UNSA and FRC — welcomed the announcement and said they were now ready to work with employers on the sustainable financing of the state pension system.

However, the more hardline CGT, FO and Solidaires unions were not moving an inch, calling for the strike and protests to continue, among them a major demonstration on January 16.

CGT head Philippe Martinez played down the impact of the CFDT and UNSA’s readiness to resume negotiations, and spoke of internal splits within these groups.

“We will see” what these unions’ workers have to say on the issue, he said, reiterating his call for the government to withdraw the pension reforms completely which he described at “the major requirement of a majority of unions representing a majority of employees.”

However, the arrival of empty January pay slips could sap the determination of some striking workers. “It is clear that some colleagues want to go back to work,” said one disillusioned Paris Metro worker during demonstrations on Saturday.

“It’s going to get tricky financially,” he added.

Private sector workers have not followed the unions’ lead to turn the campaign into a true national strike.

The government’s compromise move came a day after meetings with unions in a bid to end a strike that has frustrated Paris commuters, ruined December holiday travel plans and hurt business.

Demonstrators in the capital on Saturday, some masked and hooded, broke shop windows along their protest route, set fires and threw projectiles at police in riot gear who responded with tear gas. Several stores were ransacked as marchers brandished union flags and chanted defiantly: “We are still here!” and “Macron resign!”

Protests were also held in Marseille, Toulouse, Lyon, Nantes and several other cities.

The interior ministry said 149,000 people had turned out throughout France.

The CGT put the figure at half a million, saying the 150,000 marched in Paris alone.

In one of Macron’s signature reforms, the government is seeking to rationalize 42 existing pension schemes into a single, points-based system it says will be fairer and more transparent but which the unions fear will see millions work longer for a smaller retirement payout.

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