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France transport strike reaches tenth day as fears grow of Christmas travel chaos

Protesters want the government to back down on pension reforms.

Large numbers of people on the limited transport services in France as strikes continue.
Large numbers of people on the limited transport services in France as strikes continue.
Image: ABACA/PA Images

FRANCE IS INTO its tenth day of a crippling public transport strike aimed at forcing the government to scrap a pension revamp, as fears grew of travel mayhem during Christmas.

Train traffic has been severely disrupted with only one out four high speed long-distance trains and less than a third of regional trains running across the country.

Paris and its surrounding areas are the worst hit. Nine metro lines in the capital were closed and there were skeletal transport services between the city and its suburbs.

Only 60% of the city’s bus services were running. Strikers have warned of similar disruptions tomorrow and Monday.

The managing director of the national rail operator SNCF Rachel Picard, told Le Parisien daily today that “half of the passengers” would have trains to visit family for Christmas”, but did not elaborate on this.

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

The prospect of a protracted standoff has businesses fearing big losses during the crucial year-end festivities, and travellers worried that their holiday plans will fall through.

The Prime Minister of France Edouard Philippe yesterday asked SNCF chief Jean-Pierre Farandou to draw up a list of exactly which trains would be running during the festive season.

“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 point-based pension plan,” Laurent Blum, the general secretary of the hard-line CGT-Cheminots, the main SNCF union, told AFP.

pension-reform-protest-marseille Demonstrators during a march over pension reforms during the week. Source: Thaust Denis/Avenir Pictures/ABACA

Historic reform

The reform would do away with 42 separate regimes, some of which offer early retirement and other benefits to public sector workers such as train drivers, dockers and even Paris Opera employees.

The strike organisers have announced a massive protest for Tuesday when tens of thousands are expected to take to the streets again. 

Meanwhile teachers, who have been mobilised since the start of the protest, on Friday gained guarantees from the government of salary reviews which would cost the state 10 billion euros. The details were not revealed.

Policemen meanwhile ended their protest yesterday after managing to get assurances that their early retirement scheme would be maintained, owing to the “dangerous” nature of their job.

Both Paris operas, the Garnier and the Bastille, cancelled performances yesterday, and more through the weekend.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government insists the changes will make for a fairer system and help erase pension system deficits forecast to reach as much as €17 billion by 2025.

The average French person retires at just over 60, years earlier than most in Europe. 

Prime Minister Philippe has held talks with union leaders and more negotiations are scheduled over the coming week.

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Philippe on Friday struck a combative note, saying he “has absolutely no fear of implementing this reform”.

Macron, who has maintained a studied silence since the protests began, told reporters in Brussels on Friday that it was a “historic reform”, while expressing solidarity with those affected by the fallout.

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