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France strikes: Unions vow to fight on over pension reform

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Commuters walk on a platform at Gare de l'Est train station during a strike by all unions of French SNCF and the Paris transport network (RATP) in Paris
Commuters walk on a platform at Gare de l'Est train station during a strike by all unions of French SNCF and the Paris transport network (RATP) in Paris   -  
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Gonzalo Fuentes
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Trade unions and protesters striking over changes to France's pension system by President Emmanuel Macron vowed to fight on over the Christmas holidays, amid massive disruption to the country's trains, with as many as 40% of TGV and TER trains cancelled on Christmas Eve.

Meanwhile, six lines on the Paris Metro were closed on Monday and were expected to be closed on Tuesday 24 December. At Paris's Gare de Lyon, protesters attempting blockade the entrance to the station clashed with police.

SNFC announced Monday that 47.% of train drivers remained on strike over reforms that would see an end to a lucrative pension system that sees them able to retire at 50 years old on favourable pension packages. The reforms would also see the general age of retirement rise to 64 from 62.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday called for a "truce" in the strikes, which have paralysed France for weeks, saying: "There are moments in the life of a nation when it is good to observe a truce to respect families", Macron said during a presidential visit to the Ivory Coast.

But unions have ruled out a pause in the industrial action, which has gained momentum over recent weeks. On Monday, SUD-Rail delegate Fabien Villedieu said:."The country is blocked, people cannot take the train, there is a social anger like never [before]."

The bill, which is due to be presented to the Council of MInisters on 22 January, would see France's 42 existing pension systems incorporated into one, "universal points system."

While the bulk of opposition has come from the transport sector, other industries have got involved. On Monday, the Lavera oil refinery in Bouches-du-Rhone was shut down, while Total's oil depot at La Mede has been completely shut down since December 5.

Commerce takes a hit

Retailers have reported a 25% to 30% drop in turnover in the Paris region in the last week, according to Procos, the specialist trade federation.

The Conseil du Commerce de France (CdCF) has calculated a 20% drop in activity in the Paris region across all sectors combined, with trades particularly affected: perfumers, toy stores, chocolate makers.

However, "in the large provincial towns, activity is continuing, not in a euphoric way of course, but it is stable," said William Koeberlé, the organisation's president.

Secretary of State Agnès Pannier-Runacher called for a truce for Christmas and urged people to shop at local merchants, saying "this is the time to reach out to them.”

The hotel and restaurant industries have been hit particularly hard, with turnover for hotels down 30%, cafes down 40% and restaurants down 45%, according to a survey of the GNI-Synhorcat union, its spokesman Franck Trouet said.

The situation is particularly "catastrophic in Paris", according to Franck Delvau, co-president for Paris and the Ile-de-France region of the Union des métiers et industries de l'hôtellerie (Umih).

"Not only will there be no more events, conferences, seminars between now and the end of the year, but there is a new phenomenon: we no longer have any bookings at all.”

What does the public think?

A poll suggested 66% of the public support the introduction of a universal pension system putting an end to special schemes, which is the basis of the reform proposed by Macron.

However, 54% support or have sympathy for the trade unions and youth organisations leading the strikes, according to the Ipsos poll for CNews and Sud Radio.

Furthermore, 61% do not approve of the equilibrium retirement age of 64, the issue at the centre of the battle between the strikers and the government.

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