France's president meets ministers to discuss contentious pension reform

Transport in Paris remains paralysed on Sunday, as nationwide strike extended through weekend

French President Emmanuel Macron will on Sunday meet ministers involved in his radical pension reform which has prompted a nationwide strike and brought key transport services to a standstill, news wires reported. Transport in Paris remained paralysed on Sunday, with only the two driverless lines of the Metro in operation while national rail operator SNCF warned just one in six high-speed trains would be running.

The strikes, which began on Thursday over the plans for a single points-based pension scheme, recall the winter of 1995, when three weeks of huge stoppages forced a social policy U-turn by the then-government. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe insisted his government would not abandon the plan."If we do not make a far-reaching, serious and progressive reform today, someone else will make a really brutal one tomorrow," Philippe was quoted as saying by Le Journal du Dimanche. But the leader of the hardline CGT union, Philippe Martinez, told the paper "We will keep up until the withdrawal" of the reform plan. The prime minister is due to unveil full details of the reform to merge the 42 existing pension plans, which could spark more union anger.

Macron’s government has been negotiating with unions and others for months about the plan but won’t release the details of the changes until next week. The government says it won’t change the official retirement age of 62, but the plan is expected to encourage people to work longer.

The uncertainty about what the plan will entail is feeding public worry. Polls suggest most French support the strike and protest movement, at least for now, in hopes it will push the government to pay more heed to workers’ concerns. Some seven in 10 French employees work in the private sector, and the strikes are primarily in the public sector. But the retirement changes will affect everyone, and Thursday’s demonstrations included private sector workers, too.

Unions have vowed a second series of mass demonstrations nationwide on Tuesday and there is expected to be little easing of the transport freeze over the coming days.In a joint statement, the three main rail unions called for the strike to be stepped up on Monday.

The strikes could prove to be the biggest domestic challenge yet for Macron, who came to power in 2017 on the back of promises to radically reform France and has sought a prominent place on the international stage as Europe's number one statesman. Macron was widely believed to have ridden out the challenge posed by the "yellow vests" whose weekly Saturday protests against inequality in France had shaken the government over the last year. But the yellow vests have also sought to use the momentum of the strike movement and held a fresh protest in Paris on Saturday and others in several cities across France.

A crucial week now lies ahead: commuters will struggle to get to work on Monday and more giant nationwide protests are planned for Tuesday. Transilien, the operator of the Paris region rail network, warned of severe shortages Monday and recommended using other means of transport such as car-sharing.

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