French crowds march as govt stands firm on pension reform

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A woman with flowers in her hair gestures and chants slogans as she takes part in a demonstration in Lyon, France, on Tuesday to protest against French government's plan to overhaul the country's retirement system, as part of a national general strike. — AFP
A woman with flowers in her hair gestures and chants slogans as she takes part in a demonstration in Lyon, France, on Tuesday to protest against French government's plan to overhaul the country's retirement system, as part of a national general strike. — AFP

PARIS — Tens of thousands of protesters hit French streets on Tuesday in a pensions reform standoff that has sparked nearly two weeks of crippling transport strikes, with the government vowing it will not give in to union demands to drop the overhaul.

Teachers, hospital workers and other public employees joined transport workers for the third day of marches since the dispute began on Dec. 5.

More than 200,000 people turned out for dozens of rallies across the country, according to police estimates, as a huge march began at the Place de la Republique in Paris.

The Eiffel Tower was closed because of the protest and police were on high alert — wary of a repeat of earlier marches when shops were vandalized and vehicles set on fire.

The hard-line CGT union said electricity workers cut power to some 50,000 homes near Bordeaux and 40,000 in Lyon overnight as part of the protest, warning that bigger cuts could follow.

The government has insisted it will push through a single points-based pension system and end the current patchwork of 42 separate schemes that offer early retirement to many in the public sector.

It says the new system will be fairer and more transparent, improving pensions for women and low earners in particular.

"My determination, and that of the government and the majority, is total," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told parliament on the eve of new talks with unions.

Critics say the changes could force millions of people to work beyond the official retirement age of 62 — one of the lowest in Europe — by setting a "pivot age" of 64 that would ensure a full pension.

"What scares us about the points system is that we don't know how much a point is worth," said Kelly Grosset-Curtet, a 21-year-old student marching in Lyon.

"It seems that it's a way of separating the good pensioners from the bad ones."

Pressure on President Emmanuel Macron is growing just days before the Christmas break after the top official overseeing the pension negotiations was forced to resign on Monday after it emerged he had failed to declare income.

Commuters in Paris and other big cities have borne the brunt of the transport stoppages so far but holiday travel plans are now at risk, with just one in four high-speed TGV trains running on Tuesday.

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

Some 62 percent of respondents to a poll for the RTL broadcaster said they supported the strike but 69 percent said they wanted a "Christmas truce".

"Nobody wants to mess up Christmas, not the strikers nor workers nor the French who want to be with their families," Laurent Escure of the UNSA union told France 2 television.

"But this is entirely the government's fault."

More than 800,000 people turned out across France for the first mass demo on Dec. 5, but official figures suggest only 340,000 came out for the second rally five days later.

Train operator SNCF has warned that it may now be too late to get services back to normal by Dec. 25.

Retailers, hotel owners and restaurants, particularly in Paris, say the strike has severely dented revenues during the crucial holiday season, with some reporting sales drops of up to 60 percent.

Several universities have cancelled or postponed year-end exams, and both the Garnier and Bastille Operas in Paris have cancelled dozens of performances, costing millions of euros in lost ticket sales.

"This is absurd," Sylvie Baheux, a 55-year-old gym teacher, said at Paris' Saint-Lazare station on Tuesday, adding that her usual one-hour commute to work had doubled during the strike.

"It's complicated, but this pension reform needed to be done," she said. — AFP


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