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27.12.2019 Europe

Yellow Vests join forces with unions for fresh day of pension protests

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
LISTEN DEC 27, 2019
REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Yellow Vests demonstrators are to hold their 59th weekend protest on Saturday and will join forces with trade unions in central Paris to condemn the French government's proposed pension reforms.

Yellow Vests are due to gather at Place de la Bourse, home to the Paris Stock Exchange, at 11am on Saturday. They will then march to Gare du Nord train station where all the major trade unions will begin a demonstration against President Emmanuel Macron's proposed pension reforms.

Yellow Vest numbers have dwindled substantially since the movement began in November 2018. Only an estimated 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets around France to mark the movement's one-year anniversary on 16 November compared to hundreds of thousands in late 2018.

The unions, together with the Yellow Vests, are demanding that the government drop a plan to merge 42 existing pension schemes into a single, points-based system.

The boss of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, on Friday vowed to press on with a strike that has crippled transport in Paris for the past three weeks and is now the longest-lasting such action since the 1980s.

Shadow over celebrations
The strike against pension reforms championed by President Emmanuel Macron began on 5 December and has cast a long shadow over celebrations in France for Christmas and the New Year.

The longest transport strike in France lasted for 28 days, also over Christmas, in 1986 and early 1987. Calls by Macron and others for a Christmas truce have gone unheeded.

"It's a strong movement and still supported by public opinion," said Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the CGT union as he visited picketing workers at a bus depot.

He lashed out at Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who has said he wants no confrontation with the strikers, accusing him of not being true to his word.

"The government shows how agitated it is with this kind of conception of social dialogue," said Martinez.

No end in sight
The strike was still paralysing transport in Paris on Friday, a day the French capital should be crammed with shoppers seeking post-Christmas bargains or preparing for the New Year.

There appears to be no end in sight to the current movement with talks between the government and unions only set to resume on 7 January and major demonstrations planned two days later.

Just two driverless metro lines were working normally Friday and five lines were completely shut down. National rail operator SNCF said six out of every 10 high-speed TGV trains were running.

SNCF said in a statement that while 8.5 percent of its total employees were on strike, 38.8 percent of drivers were not working. It said just 35 percent of scheduled TGVs would be working on New Year's Day and 50 percent on January 2.

"I feel like the government is even more cornered than it was in 1995, so we are heading towards a deadlock with the government eventually winning the conflict but with a lot of collateral damage," said Bernard, a pensioner, as he waited for a train at Montparnasse station in Paris.

Another passenger, Audrey, a saleswoman, added that she was in favour of the strike. "They want their voices to be heard, and, unfortunately, there is no other way. Of course there are elections, but it's not enough."

Union activists also blocked four depots of Paris buses, which have largely kept running in the strikes with a much reduced service,  early Friday before being dispersed peacefully by Paris police, the local authorities said.