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French unions vow to stand firm as pension strike softens

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Striking workers poured into streets across France on Thursday for a sixth day of mass demonstrations against a pensions overhaul, a show of defiance after Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said a historic transport stoppage "has gone on for too long."

[PARIS] Striking workers poured into streets across France on Thursday for a sixth day of mass demonstrations against a pensions overhaul, a show of defiance after Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said a historic transport stoppage "has gone on for too long."

The rallies came on the 43rd day of a strike that again snarled train traffic and caused misery for millions of commuters in Paris especially.

"It's never too late to make a government back down," Philippe Martinez of the CGT union said ahead of a demonstration at the Montparnasse train station in the capital that included striking teachers, lawyers and hospital workers.

"Our determination is still just as strong" as when the strike was launched on Dec 5, he said.

The rallies came with a spike in the number of striking workers at train operator SNCF, with 10 per cent walking off the job compared with just 4.3 per cent on Monday.

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But the moderate CFDT union, France's largest, did not take part in the rally, after welcoming a move by Philippe to temporarily withdraw a measure that would have forced people to work until 64 to qualify for a full pension.

It was a key plank of a reform that aims to do away with France's 42 separate pension schemes which grant early retirement and other advantages to workers in various sectors, in favour of a single system.

Critics say the new points-based system will effectively require workers in both the public and private sectors to work well beyond the official retirement age of 62 to avoid curtailed pensions.

"Drop this project once and for all, abandon it and come back to the negotiating table," urged Yves Veyrier of the FO trade union.

Philippe's office estimated Wednesday that the strike had cost the SNCF around 800 million euros (S$1.33 billion), and nearly 200 million euros for the Paris transit authority RATP.

But while labour leaders have called for port blockades and other walkouts to amplify their protest, demonstration numbers have steadily eroded since December, even as several polls show public support for the strike hovering at around 60 per cent.

About 452,000 people protested across France last Thursday, including 56,000 in the capital, according to the police, compared with 805,000 nationwide on the first day of the strike on December 5.

The government aims to finalise its bill for approval at a cabinet meeting on Jan 24 before submitting it to parliament, where a vote is expected within months.

The reform would be rolled out gradually for workers born in 1975 and later, though the government has already granted exceptions to police and military personnel while delaying the shift for Paris Opera dancers, who also have their own pension regime.

AFP

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