French strike rumbles on as PM, unions defiant

French strike rumbles on as PM, unions defiant
French strike rumbles on as PM, unions defiant

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - PARIS — Parisians again battled stamina-busting commutes on Monday as a transport strike dragged on into its 40th day, with both the French government and hard-line unions digging in on the pension reforms that sparked the standoff.

There was still major disruption on the Paris metro and the national railway system, even after Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced a major concession to unions at the weekend.

But the situation was somewhat improved from previous weeks, with all Paris metro lines now open — though most only during peak hours — and the trains running slightly more regularly.

National rail operator SNCF said eight out of ten high-speed TGV trains were operating, although slower regional trains were more affected.

It also said that the number of its staff observing the strike had fallen to 4.3 percent, the lowest rate since the strike began, but 22.5 percent of drivers still walked off the job.

"We are going to go to the end" in implementing the pension reforms, Philippe said on France 2 television late Sunday.

"Those who incite (workers) to continue the strike are leading them perhaps into a dead end... I think that they need to assume their responsibilities," he said.

"I think you know the phrase — 'you need to know how to end a strike'. We are not far now," he added.

Philippe announced on Saturday that he would drop plans for a "pivot age" that would raise the official age for a full pension to 64 from 62, a move welcomed by more moderate trade unions such as the CFDT.

President Emmanuel Macron, who has sought to stay above the fray throughout the crisis by relying on Philippe to deal with the unions, called the change "a constructive and responsible compromise."

But the more hardline CGT, FO and Solidaires unions were standing firm, calling for the strike and protests to continue, including another major demonstration on Thursday.

"When you can't convince with ideas you use good old-fashioned methods like repression," said CGT leader Philippe Martinez as he denounced Philippe's comments.

He described the concession announced by the premier as no more than a "smokescreen.. to make us work longer."

Demonstrators in the capital on Saturday, some masked and hooded, broke shop windows and set fires along their protest route, and threw projectiles at police in riot gear who responded with tear gas.

The government is not budging on its overall plan to rationalize the country's 42 existing pension regimes into a single, points-based system it says will be fairer and more transparent.

"The end of the pivot age does not mean the end of the strike," commented the Le Parisien daily.

Laurent Berger, the head of the moderate CFDT, France's largest union, also struck a cautious note while reaffirming his welcome for the withdrawal of the "pivot age" of 64 as "extremely important."

"We are far from being at the end of this story on the universal system for pensions and we will need to keep up the pressure," he told RTL Radio.

The strike has also been observed by other public-service workers affected by the reforms, including staff at the Paris Opera, which on Saturday cancelled its performance of "The Barber of Seville," its first show of 2020.

Lawyers have also been striking, with the first day of the keenly awaited trial of Bernard Preynat, a priest who is charged with abusing dozens of boy scouts in the southeastern Lyon area in the 1980s and 1990s, delayed to Tuesday from Monday.

"We are aware that this trial is very important but we think it would not be appropriate to give it special treatment," said the head of the Lyon bar association Serge Deygas at the court, accompanied by a dozen striking lawyers.

Daredevil French climber Alain Robert, known as the French "Spiderman," made his own contribution to support the protests, scurrying up a towering skyscraper just outside Paris in the La Defense business district.

"I'm 57, so technically not far from retirement. And climbing is the only way I make money," Robert said before being detained after his illicit 52-minute climb.

"Will I have to keep climbing solo until I'm 64? Or even 67?" he added. — AFP

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