French pension talks resume as govt seeks to end standoff

French unions have called for blockades of refineries and fuel depots starting Tuesday, when talks resume on the government’s pension overhaul
The French government and unions are to resume talks Tuesday over a pensions overhaul that has unleashed the longest transport strike in decades, with the premier saying both sides need to “budge a little”.

As the standoff escalated, with police deployed to oil refineries and fuel depots to prevent a blockade by unions, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he remained open to discussion.

“To find a compromise, everyone has to budge a little,” Philippe told the RTL broadcaster on the 34th day of the strike, which has caused travel chaos in Paris and severely impacted inter-city rail services.

While insisting the pension reform would not be abandoned, Philippe made conciliatory noises about a key sticking point — the government’s insistence that people work longer in order to keep the pension system afloat.

The moderate CFDT union, with which the government is hoping to do a deal and break the back of the strike, has baulked at government proposals to extend to 64 the age at which people qualify for a full pension — two years after the official retirement age.

“The pivot age (64) must be removed from the bill,” CFDT leader Laurent Berger said as he arrived at the labour ministry for the talks.

Philippe said that if unions and employers could come up with a better way to reduce the pension deficit, “I will take it.”

The hardline CGT union, the biggest at state rail operator SNCF, continued to insist that the government scrap the reforms outright. The CGT has also called for a blockade of France’s eight oil refineries.

“The only overture we want to hear is ‘we’re stopping everything’,” CGT leader Philippe Martinez told France Inter radio.

As the standoff continues, public support for the strike, which remained high throughout the first month, has begun to fall.

A Harris Interactive poll Monday showed 60 percent backing the industrial action, down nine points since it started.

An Ifop poll gave it just 44 percent backing, down seven points from the previous survey on December 19-20.

– Retailers hurting –

The reform would eliminate 42 separate pension schemes that offer early retirement and other advantages, mainly to public-sector workers, in favour of a single system.

The CGT and Force Ouvriere unions have called for a new day of mass walkouts against the reform on Thursday, which could see schools shut and public transport even more impacted than usual.

Train operator SNCF says it has lost more than 600 million euros ($670 million) in ticket sales since the strike began on December 5.

The head of the Paris chamber of trades and crafts said retail sales in the capital were down by between 30 and 40 percent.

– ‘Gritting our teeth’ –

As the strike spreads to oil refineries, raising the spectre of petrol shortages, motorists rushed to fill up their tanks.

A spokesman for the FNIC-CGT union told France Info radio on Tuesday that seven out of France’s eight refineries had been brought to a halt.

As the weeks pass, the number of striking rail and metro workers has tapered off, partly due to lost pay.

“For now, we are gritting our teeth,” Eric Challal, a striking customer service agent at Gare du Nord station in Paris, told AFP.

The strike is the longest continuous work stoppage on French railways since the national rail service was created in the 1930s.

President Emmanuel Macron made the pensions overhaul a key plank in his 2017 election campaign, saying a single points-based system would be fairer.

The government has already made a series of concessions to the police, military, rail workers and Paris Opera employees, allowing them to continue retiring early or keep their separate benefits for several years to come.

But most salaried workers born in 1975 or later would be impacted by the new system, in which people would earn points based on lifetime earnings.

Currently, most pensions are calculated from a worker’s 25 best years of earnings — public workers, however, get payouts based on their last six months.