PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and senior Cabinet ministers were due to meet late Sunday to discuss the government’s proposed pensions reforms as public transport in France was crippled for a fourth day running in protest.
The country’s powerful labor unions, who claim the reforms will force many to work longer for a smaller retirement payout, began their protest on Thursday with the mass strike stranding commuters, closing schools and hitting tourism.
On the first day, some 800,000 people took to the streets in protest at the plan to introduce a single, points-based pension scheme for workers in all economic sectors.
Many people opted to take days off or to work from home, but thousands had no choice but to squeeze into perilously overfull suburban trains and metros whose numbers were slashed to a minimum.
The biggest labor unrest in years comes as France’s economy is already dented by more than a year of weekly anti-government demonstrations by “yellow vest” activists protesting about unemployment and waning spending power.
Many are against Macron’s plans, which he says will put the country on a solid economic footing, of which the retirement overhaul forms a major part.
The labor action recalled the winter of 1995, when three weeks of stoppages forced a social policy U-turn by the then-government.
Business owners fear for their bottom line, with concerns over delivery of goods if the action continues, and client numbers dwindling at the height of the Christmas shopping season.
On Thursday and Friday, strikers also blocked several fuel depots around France, causing long gas station lines as worried motorists stocked up.
The first day of the strike already caused a 30 percent drop in sales on average, according to the Alliance of Commerce which represents 27,000 supermarkets and clothing and shoe stores with almost 200,000 workers.
It expressed concern for shops already “placed in jeopardy, for a year running now, by the ‘yellow vests’ movement.”
Added the Union of Local Enterprises, prolonged unrest “could be fatal for many” small businesses.
A hotel association said the first day of the strike saw reservations in the larger Paris region drop 30-40 percent.
Not just local travel was affected, with regional and international trains, including the Thalys and Eurostar, also hobbled by the unrest, and several flights canceled on the first days of the strike.
Many tourists were left disappointed as the world-famous Louvre closed some rooms, and the Paris Opera and other theaters in the capital canceled performances.
The chaos was set to continue on Monday, with the three main rail unions calling for the action to be stepped up ahead of another general strike and mass protests called for Tuesday.
“In the coming days, we recommend avoiding public transport,” said the website of the RATP public train, tram, bus and metro company on which some 10 million passengers in larger Paris rely daily to get to work.
Ten out of the RATP’s 16 metro lines will be offline Monday, four will offer limited services, and the only two driverless metros will run as scheduled but with a “risk of congestion” during peak hours.
All 14 metro lines that rely on drivers were closed Sunday.
Inter-city rail operator SNCF cautioned of potentially “dangerous” overcrowding, with availability reduced to about 15-20 percent.
The capital city’s main roads, meanwhile, are expected to be more congested than usual as many non-striking workers opt to drive to work.
As the pressure mounted, Philippe vowed to the Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche he was “determined” to pursue the reform — which will see 42 pension plans merged into one.
“If we do not make a far-reaching, serious and progressive reform today, someone else will do a really brutal one tomorrow,” he said.
But the leader of the hardline CGT union, Philippe Martinez, told the paper: “We will keep up until the withdrawal” of the reform plan, which he said contained “nothing good.”
A week of conflict likely lies ahead, with Jean-Paul Delevoye, who Macron appointed to lead the pension reform project, set to unveil the outcome of his months-long consultations on Monday, followed by Philippe announcing the final details of the proposed reform plan on Wednesday.
Delevoye has already angered unions by suggesting canceling the more advantageous pensions enjoyed by some professions including public transport and utilities workers, sailors, notaries and even Paris Opera workers.
Philippe insisted the reform will “provide extremely positive outcomes for many people who are suffering injustices in the current system”, including women and farmers.
An opinion poll by the IFOP agency said Sunday that 33 percent of French people supported the strike.