Talks fail to break French strike standoff

PARIS (AFP) – Talks aimed at ending France’s longest transport strike failed to make headway on Friday as the government and union leaders lock horns over hotly-contested pension overhaul.

The country has been hit by weeks of crippling train and metro stoppages as unions battle the proposals, one of President Emanuel Macron’s signature reforms.

Only Laurent Berger of the moderate CFDT union mooted the possibility of rapprochement, saying Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had shown a “commitment to openness” regarding the disputed proposal to make people work until 64 for a full pension – two years beyond the official retirement age.

“But as I’ve said for several days now, we need to see what happens,” he said.

Both the CGT and FO unions, which are demanding the reform be dropped entirely, vowed to press ahead with the strike, now in its sixth week.

Striking workers hide behind banners during a demonstration in Lyon, central France. PHOTO: AP

“Our determination remains absolute,” FO chief Yves Veyrier said after his meeting with Philippe and other officials. The government said the new “pivot age” of 64 would plug pension deficits set to soar in coming years as a growing number of retirees live ever longer.

Unions were told at Friday’s meetings that the measure would save five billion euros by 2023 and some 11 billion euros by 2026.

Philippe has said he is willing to negotiate on the pivot age, but it remains a key feature of a draft bill unveiled overnight.

The overhaul would sweep away the country’s 42 separate regimes in favour of a single system.

The government wants to move quickly, with a final bill presented on January 24 that could be submitted to Parliament a few weeks later.

The talks came after a fourth day of mass demonstrations since December by opponents of the reform, which they say would force public- and private-sector workers to work longer while lowering pension payouts for millions.

Some 452,000 people turned out across France for marches that were again marred by clashes with police and vandalism, with 27 people detained in Paris.

Rallies were held yesterday and new protests have been called for three days starting next Tuesday.

“We have to step up our actions, and other sectors have to take up the baton,” Benoit Teste of the FSU teachers’ union said late Thursday.

The hardline CGT union, the largest among public sector workers, said it has extended until January 16 a blockade of refineries and fuel depots, which has already caused fuel shortages in some areas.

Commuting has become a daily headache as train services and Paris metro lines were again curtailed on Friday, the 37th day of the strikes.

Separately on Friday, hundreds of lawyers staged a sit-in at the Paris courthouse to denounce the loss of their separate pension scheme, which would see their contribution rates double to 28 per cent of earnings from 14 per cent.

“It’s going to extremely difficult to manage,” Wahid Belaghlem, one of the lawyers, told AFP. “I’m wondering if I have a future.”