French govt says ready to talk as pension strike bites

PARIS (AFP) – French officials said on Thursday that they were open to negotiating a pension overhaul that has sparked crippling transport strikes, as unions warned of walkouts through the holidays unless the government drops the plan.

President Emmanuel Macron, who so far has spoken rarely about a centrepiece of his far-ranging reform drive for France, told reporters in Brussels that “now is the time for consultations.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who presented details of the project on Wednesday, said he would call union leaders to “quickly resume the dialogue” on the reforms.

“My door is open and my hand outstretched,” Philippe said on Twitter.

Philippe has proposed talks “as soon as possible next week”, his office said in a statement.

Riot police officers stand outside a cafe during a demonstration in Paris. PHOTO: AP

Unions unanimously rejected his plan for a single pension system that maintains the legal retirement age at 62, but with reduced payouts unless a person works until at least 64.

Even France’s moderate CFDT union, the country’s largest and long in favour of a single points-based pension system, said the government had crossed a “red line” and voiced support for mass demonstrations on December 17.

“I’m ready to talk,” CFDT Chief Laurent Berger told BFM television.

“But a willingness to be constructive doesn’t mean letting someone walk all over you.”

“There won’t be any Christmas truce,” warned Laurent Brun, head of the transport arm at France’s hard-line CGT union, the largest among public-sector workers including those at rail operator SNCF.