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Thursday, 01 October 2020

French crowds march as government stands firm on pension reform

Teachers, hospital workers and other public employees joined transport workers for the third day of marches since the dispute began on December 5, demanding the government abandon its plan

AFP , Tuesday 17 Dec 2019
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Tens of thousands of protesters hit French streets on Tuesday in a pensions reform standoff that has sparked nearly two weeks of crippling transport strikes, raising the spectre of mass travel chaos over the Christmas holiday.

Teachers, hospital workers and other public employees joined transport workers for the third day of marches since the dispute began on December 5, demanding the government abandon its plan.

Police said 14,000 rallied in Nantes and nearly 11,000 in Montpellier ahead of a Paris demonstration expected later on Tuesday.

The hard-line CGT union said electricity workers cut power to some 50,000 homes near Bordeaux and 40,000 in Lyon overnight as part of the protest, warning that bigger cuts could follow.

The Eiffel Tower was closed because of the protest and police were on high alert -- wary of a repeat of earlier marches when shops were vandalised and vehicles set on fire.

The government has insisted it will push through a single points-based pension system and end the current patchwork of 42 separate schemes that offer early retirement to many in the public sector.

Unions reject the reforms, which they say could force millions of people to work beyond the official retirement age of 62 -- one of the lowest in Europe.

"What scares us about the points system is that we don't know how much a point is worth," said Kelly Grosset-Curtet, a 21-year-old student marching in Lyon.

"It seems that it's a way of separating the good pensioners from the bad ones."

- 'Mess up Christmas' -
Pressure on President Emmanuel Macron is growing just days before the Christmas break after the top official overseeing the pension negotiations was forced to resign on Monday after it emerged he had failed to declare income.

Commuters in Paris and other big cities have borne the brunt of the transport stoppages so far but holiday travel plans are now at risk, with just one in four high-speed TGV trains running on Tuesday.

Strike organisers are hoping for a repeat of 1995 when they forced the government to back down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail strikes just before Christmas.

Some 62 percent of respondents to a poll for the RTL broadcaster said they supported the strike but 69 percent said they wanted a "Christmas truce".

"Nobody wants to mess up Christmas, not the strikers nor workers nor the French who want to be with their families," Laurent Escure of the UNSA union told France 2 television.

"But this is entirely the government's fault."

The government has said the strike will not derail the pension changes, a key plank in Macron's reform drive for the French economy, but has signalled it could negotiate on some aspects.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is set to resume talks with union leaders on Wednesday afternoon.

- 'Absurd' -
Train operator SNCF has warned that it may now be too late to get services back to normal by December 25.

Retailers, hotel owners and restaurants, particularly in Paris, say the strike has severely dented revenues during the crucial holiday season, with some reporting sales drops of up to 60 percent.

Several universities have cancelled or postponed year-end exams, and both the Garnier and Bastille Operas in Paris have cancelled dozens of performances, costing millions of euros in lost ticket sales.

"This is absurd," Sylvie Baheux, a 55-year-old gym teacher, said at Paris' Saint-Lazare station on Tuesday, adding that her usual one-hour commute to work had doubled during the strike.

"It's complicated, but this pension reform needed to be done," she told AFP.

More than 800,000 people turned out across France for the first mass demo on December 5 but official figures suggest only 340,000 came out for the second rally five days later.

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