5th day of French strikes against Macron causes 600km gridlock in Paris

Railway workers gather during a meeting of the CGT union in Rennes. (AP pic)

PARIS: France’s transport turmoil deepened on Monday with unions staging a fifth day of strikes against President Emmanuel Macron and his plans for a pensions overhaul as the government prepared to unveil details of the reform later in the week.

A bus strike added to the travel misery in Paris, where just two of the 16 metro lines were operating as normal, sparking massive traffic jams as people drove to work.

More than 600km of gridlock was reported in the Paris region early on Monday, twice the normal level according to the Sytadin traffic website.

With many having opted to work from home last week and only now returning to the workplace, this week will test public support for the strike.

A poll Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed 53% of the French supporting the strike or expressing sympathy for their demands, up six points in a week.

Unions have called for a second day of mass protests for Tuesday, a day before the government presents the full details of its plans for a single points-based pension scheme that does away with dozens of more advantageous plans enjoyed by train drivers, sailors, lawyers and other professions.

Critics say it will effectively force millions to work longer or face curtailed benefits, despite Macron’s promise he would not touch the official retirement age of 62.

Adding to the pressure Monday was a report that Jean-Paul Delevoye, who is leading the pensions negotiations with unions, had not declared his post on the board of an insurance training institute on his latest asset declaration.

Delevoye admitted a mistake but on Monday said he had quit the unpaid board post “to put an end to this controversy”.

A monstrosity

Unions have called for another day of strikes and demonstrations Tuesday after the first march on Dec 5, which saw 800,000 people hit streets nationwide according to the interior ministry, the biggest show of union strength in years.

Teachers, in particular, are expected to walk out again, raising the prospect of widespread school closures.

Firefighters, electricity workers and “yellow vest” anti-government demonstrators have also joined railway workers in the streets in recent days.

Delevoye, who drafted the reforms, and Health Minister Agnes Buzyn will meet with trade unions Monday to try to seek an end to the deadlock.

But union leaders have sounded an uncompromising note.

“I will not negotiate over the implementation of what I describe as a monstrosity which endangers tomorrow’s pensioners,” said Yves Veyrier, the head of the militant Force Ouvriere union.

The strike has squeezed retailers in the run-up to Christmas, raising the prospect of another bleak year-end after the unrest caused by the yellow vests in late 2018.

“This weekend was catastrophic: Paris was empty, restaurants and brasseries, even fast food was impacted, with some losing up to 50% of their sales,” a spokesman for the GNI-Synhorcat alliance of restaurant and hotel owners.

Jacques Baudoz, president of the Joueclub chain of toy stores, told Europe 1 radio that revenue dropped 20% at stores in larger cities.

Fairer system for all? 

Regional and international trains, including the Eurostar to London and Thalys to Brussels, have also been hobbled by the unrest, though flights were unaffected after a series of cancellations last week.

Macron, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and senior cabinet ministers met late Sunday to discuss the changes, and are set to meet again Tuesday night before Philippe presents the plan on Wednesday.

“If we do not carry out a far-reaching, serious and progressive reform today, someone else will do a really brutal one tomorrow,” Philippe told Le Journal du Dimanche.

The strike has drawn comparisons with late 1995 when three weeks of strikes forced the then centre-right government to withdraw its pension reforms.

Adrien Quatennens, a lawmaker from the far-left France Unbowed party, acknowledged on LCI radio that the strike was hard on businesses and commuters, but said: “It’s better to endure a few weeks of hassle than … years of hardship” in retirement.