French unions continue strikes despite government’s compromise overture



Since early December, trade unions have protested President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial plans to reform France’s famously byzantine retirement system, under which 42 separate schemes govern different types of public sector employees.

Macron’s idea was to centralize these schemes into a single, points-based system in which some workers would gain while others — including transport workers on high-speed train lines and the Paris Metro — stood to lose. Crippling transport strikes that continued throughout the holiday season followed, interrupting travel plans and disrupting the ever-lucrative tourist industry in major French cities.

On Wednesday, François Villeroy de Galha, governor of the Bank of France, the country’s central bank, told a parliamentary committee that the strikes — now France’s longest — had reduced economic growth in the fourth quarter of 2019 by as much as 0.1 percent.

To break the impasse, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe suggested a compromise over the weekend: For the moment, the government will drop the so-called “pivot age” of 64, which is when workers would qualify for a full pension under Macron’s new universal scheme, compared to France’s current official retirement age of 62.

The government also announced that it would delay making any crucial decisions about funding France’s famously generous retirement system until the end of April, although that delay does not foreclose eventual cuts.

The pivot age has been a particular point of contention from the beginning of the strikes, and some unions — including France’s moderate Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT) — were heartened by the government’s decision to shelve it.

The CFDT “welcomes the withdrawal of the pivot age from the bill, a withdrawal that marks the government’s will to compromise,” the union said in a statement. “In this spirit, the CFDT will continue discussions within the framework proposed to answer the questions that remain about the future universal regime.”

Likewise, the worst of the transit strikes has ended.

In Paris, all 14 Metro lines are now running, although all except for the two that run automatically are operating on a shortened schedule, mostly to cover peak rush-hour times in the mornings and late afternoons.

On the immediate outskirts of the capital, three out of four suburban Transilien trains are running, while eight out of 10 longer-haul commuter trains are now in service, according to the SNCF, France’s national rail company.

Across the country, about 80 percent of France’s renowned high-speed TGV rail service is also back in operation, the SNCF reported.

But not all unions bosses were satisfied. Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), wrote a blistering letter to the prime minister on Tuesday, rejecting his apparent olive branch.

Martinez attacked what he called the “many uncertainties, inaccuracies or absence of content on different modalities” that he believes remain in the government’s plans.

“Contrary to what you claim, the government’s strategy, its conception of dialogue and listening are not likely to appease the level of dissatisfaction and mobilization that exists in our country,” he wrote.

Reforming France’s retirement system, known here as the “mother of all reforms,” has been a priority for Macron since his election in 2017. Previous presidents who have attempted similar overhauls have failed, with most caving in to the demands of unions after crippling strikes.

Macron may still ultimately get his way, even if protests are slated to continue and his government has already walked back the proposal to raise the full retirement age. The rest of the proposals remain intact, and they are likely to be approved by the French parliament early this year.



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