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Gloomy Christmas Eve on 20th day of French strike

Gloomy Christmas Eve on 20th day of French strike

A CGT unionist holds a box for strike fund donations during a Christmas lunch on Dec 24, 2019 at the autonomous port of Marseille. (Photo: AFP/Christophe Simon)

PARIS: Christmas Eve 2019 was an unusually gloomy one for France, as the 20th day of a transport strike left many scrambling on Tuesday (Dec 24) to reach their loved ones for the traditional family feast, while others simply gave up.

The protest against pension reform has led to thousands of trains being cancelled or delayed, with taxis, ride-sharing services and car rental agencies unable to make up the shortfall.

"We're not sure what to do," said Joel Rossignon, 66, visiting Paris from the east of France to spend Christmas with his son, who lives in a far-flung suburb of the capital with none of the usual trains running.

"We even tried to book a taxi, yesterday already, but there were none," he said, standing with his suitcase on the street.

France faces its nineteenth consecutive day of strikes

Negotiations with unions last week failed to find middle ground, and strikers vowed there would be no holiday truce unless the government scraps its plan to merge the country's 42 pension schemes into one.

Talks are scheduled to resume on Jan 7, according to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe's office.

Roughly 40 striking dancers staged an elegant protest in Paris on Tuesday, braving chilly weather to perform set pieces from "Swan Lake" in white tutus outside Opera Garnier as onlookers applauded.

Behind them, banners draped across the famous building's arches read "Paris Opera strike" and "Culture in danger".

"We wanted to offer a moment of grace," said dancer Alexandre Carniato, a spokesman for the strikers.

Since it started on Dec 5, the strike has hit daily commuters hard - especially around Paris and other large cities - and is now impeding tens of thousands of ticket holders who had planned to spend the festive season with family or friends.

'THIS IS HORRIBLE'

Rail operator SNCF provided only 40 per cent of its usual high-speed TGV and regional TER train services on Tuesday, and 20 per cent of inter-city and Paris suburban trains on Tuesday, with even fewer planned for Christmas Day, on Wednesday.

Suburb dwellers hoping to spend Christmas in the City of Light also had bad news. The SNCF will close several railway lines on Tuesday afternoon, with some reopening Wednesday late morning, and others only Thursday.

Of Paris's 16 metro lines, only the two automated ones will run on Wednesday, provider RATP said.

France faces its nineteenth consecutive day of strikes

The government's pension overhaul, which it says would create a fairer system, would see some public employees - notably railway staff - lose early-retirement benefits.

But workers baulk at the inclusion of a so-called "pivot age" of 64 until which people would have to work to earn a full pension - two years beyond the official retirement age.

"This is horrible. These three weeks have been hard for me," said Ristic Nevena, 29, who works as a manager in Paris, and travels daily from Montfermeil about 17 kilometres away.

She is obliged to take a different train from her usual one, with many inter-connections, making her daily commute three or four hours longer.

'DAILY STRUGGLE'

Unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995 when the government backed down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail stoppages just before Christmas.

But the action is taking a heavy toll on businesses, especially retailers, hotels and restaurants, during what should be one of the busiest periods of the year.

CGT union dockers and rail workers attend a Christmas lunch on Dec 24, 2019 at the autonomous port of Marseille, on the 20th day of a nationwide strike over French government's plan to overhaul the country's retirement system. (Photo: AFP / Christophe Simon)

Industry associations have reported turnover declines of 30 to 60 per cent from a year earlier, and the SNCF said on Tuesday it had lost €400 million (US$442 million) in potential earnings so far.

Non-transport workers have also started joining the protest, claiming to have impeded production at some oil refineries, and interrupting power to thousands of homes in recent days.

The man leading the government's pension reform project, Laurent Pietraszewski, told BFM TV on Tuesday he believed the government was "willing to compromise" in the negotiations, set to last throughout January.

A poll by the IFOP agency published Sunday showed public backing for the action dropping by three percentage points, though 51 per cent of respondents still expressed support or sympathy for the strikers.

On Tuesday, the Info'Com-CGT union presented a cheque for €250,000 (US$277,000) to striking workers of the RATP Paris rail service, from a fund containing public contributions.

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