French Transport Strike Enters Fourth Week

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

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

A subway station remains closed Dec. 6, 2019, in Paris. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)

Only a fraction of high-speed and intercity 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.

Strikers vowed there would be no halt to the strike during the holidays unless officials scrap plans to merge the country’s 42 pension schemes into one.

Transport on Thursday was still 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 on Jan. 7.

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

But workers balk 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 of 62.

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 passersby 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 hope for a repeat of 1995, when the government backed down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail stoppages just before Christmas.

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.

Industry associations have reported declines of 30% to 60% from a year ago, and the state-owned railway company SNCF said Tuesday it had lost $442 million in potential earnings so far.

Strikers, too, are losing out, forfeiting their salary for days not worked — 21 days by Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the Info’Com-CGT (General Confederation of Labor) union presented a check for $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 said at a union-organized 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.”

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,” Laurent Brun, head of the rail workers union, said Tuesday.

He 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 3 percentage points, though 51% of respondents still expressed support or sympathy for the strike, which is also expected to cast a pall over New Year’s celebrations and the first working weeks of 2020.

© Agence France-Presse

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