France faces a crunch week in a crippling strike standoff between unions and the government over pension reform amid uncertainty over whether millions will be stranded at Christmas.
National train traffic and the Paris metro remained severely disrupted on the eleventh day of the industrial action against the pensions overhaul, which aims to phase out France’s 42 separate pension schemes into one system that requires people to work for longer.
The country’s biggest union, the moderate CFDT, has joined calls for a third national day of protests on Tuesday over the prospect of reducing pensions for people who retire at the legal age of 62 instead of a new, so-called "pivot age" of 64.
Leftist unions, including the die-hard CGT, want the reform to be scrapped outright and the current system maintained. They are banking on a re-run of 1995, when they forced the conservative Chirac administration to back down on pensions after three weeks of transport gridlock just before Christmas.
French business fears major losses and travellers are worried that their holiday plans will fall through.
The government has insisted the pension reforms are fairer as all workers – public and private – are on a level playing field, with independent workers and women better accounted for.
It clearly hopes public opinion will sway in its favour as the Christmas countdown commences.
In an interview with Le Parisien, Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, said: ”Christmas is an important time.”
“I don’t think the French would accept being deprived of that time," he said, warning the unions to “face up to their responsibilities” over the “bothersome” strikes.
However, a poll in Le Journal du Dimanche weekly suggested a majority of French, some 54 per cent, either support the strikers or are sympathetic to their cause, up from 46 percent before the strike began on December 5.
Only 30 per cent of those polled opposed the strike outright.
Buoyed by public support, Laurent Blum, the general secretary of the hardline CGT-Cheminots drivers’ union, said: ”If the government wants the conflict to end before the holidays, they have all of next week to take the wise decision and scrap the points-based pension plan.”
A high percentage of train drivers have vowed not to return until then.
The CFDT, however, has indicated it is against blockages over Christmas.
"We have to break this deadlock," said the union’s leader, Laurent Berger, who made it clear he would drop objections to the reform if the government scrapped the "pivot age".
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