French transport strikes over Macron’s pension reforms enter fourth week of chaos

Thousands of families have their Christmas holiday plans ruined as many railway services remain closed

Protesters shout slogans and raise their fist as they take part in a demonstration near Gare de l'Est train station in Paris on December 26, 2019, as part of a nationwide multi-sector strike against French government's pensions overhaul. / AFP / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN
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Travellers across France experienced more disruption on Thursday, as transport strikes over President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms entered their fourth week.

Over the Christmas holiday period, thousands of people scrambled to make alternative travel arrangements after scores of trains were either cancelled or delayed. Taxi and ridesharing services were inundated with requests as people rushed to celebrate the festive break with their loved ones.

Despite the French government calling for a truce over the holiday season, the strikes entered their 22nd consecutive day on Thursday, with only 50 per cent of high-speed regional trains running.

Mr Macron's new pension plan would see some workers retire later or face reduced payouts.

The European country’s complex pension system has 42 different schemes across both private and public sectors, which vary in retirement age and benefits.

Mr Macron wants to create a unified system to combat inconsistencies, which has drawn the ire of those with advantageous pensions systems – including lawyers and sailors. The president’s plan will mean that those with better pensions will retire later or face a lower payout.

Other workers, especially those who work on the railways, are furious at Mr Macron’s plans to get rid of special schemes that make allow early retirement for employees who work unusual hours or do physically-demanding jobs.

SNCF, France’s state-owned rail company, said services would be disrupted throughout December 26 and recommended travellers postpone or cancel their trips if they were able to. Four Paris metro lines were closed and at least ten metro lines were running on reduced schedules on Thursday.

A spokesperson for SNCF said that the company was hopeful for improvements by the weekend. "We expect to be running three out of the usual five TGVs," he said.

The French government and unions failed to reach consensus last week, and talks are expected to resume on January 7.

Demonstrators said there would be no halt to the strike over the Christmas period unless Mr Macron abandons his pension plans.

After over three weeks of walk-outs, the strikers are losing out too by forfeiting their salaries.

"This is a turning point," train driver Raffi Kaya told AFP at a union-organised Christmas lunch for strikers at Paris' Gare de Lyon train station on Tuesday.

"It is starting to hurt financially. But we have gone too far to stop now."

The retirement age in France is 62, one of the lowest among OECD countries.

French polling firm IFOp found Sunday that public backing for the strike had dropped three percentage points to 51 from 54 per cent.