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French Strikes May Be Starting to Fade as Train Crews Return

Geraldine Amiel

(Bloomberg) -- The French government is hoping the strikes against its pension reform plans may be starting to wind down as President Emmanuel Macron prepares to make his traditional New Year’s address.

Metro and railway services around Paris slightly improved on Tuesday, the 27th straight day of action, though trains were still disrupted outside rush hours. That suggests that an end of the protests, albeit a gradual one, may be in sight, one French official said. Macron, who’s so far said little about the backlash against his efforts to streamline the public pension system, will speak on French television at 8 p.m.

Tensions are running high in France ahead of the president’s speech as the protests evoke memories of the strikes that derailed earlier efforts at reform. The industrial action has already run on longer than the 1995 demonstrations which thwarted plans to change the state system for retirement and health care.

Macron will call for calm and reaffirm his commitment to modernizing a state retirement system designed in the aftermath of World War II, according to his office cited by Agence France-Presse. The president will signal he’s open to dialogue but will leave his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in charge, AFP said.

French rail operator SNCF plans to operate two out of three high-speed trains this weekend, AFP reported, citing SNCF official Pierre Matuchet. “There are more trains because there are fewer strikers,” Matuchet said.

The battle with France’s powerful unions will shape the 42-year-old president’s ability to push on with his plans to upgrade the French state and its economy. The risk for Macron is that the labor movement helps revive the Yellow-Vest protests that spread violence across France a year ago. Their combined efforts could multiply the disruption to the economy and force him to back down.

Economic Impact

Unions oppose a pension-system overhaul that aims to merge 42 separate regimes into a single universal points-based system and offers incentives to raise the age for full retirement benefits to 64 from 62. Workers’ leaders are aiming to rev up the demonstrations again once the holiday season ends with calls for a fourth day of nationwide protests on Jan. 9

The far-left CGT union is pushing for the protests to shift up a gear and on Monday called for a complete blockade of the country’s refineries from Jan. 7 until Jan. 10.

“It is high time to press the Stop button,” Force Ouvriere’s representative Yves Veyrier said in an interview with France Info on Monday.

Read More: Counting the Cost of Resisting French Pension Reform

Although the strikes have been far less widespread than those in 1995, retailers, small companies, hotels and restaurants have been hurt during the crucial year-end holiday season, particularly in the Paris region which accounts for around a third of the country’s GDP. Some oil refineries and fuel depots have also been blocked raising fears of gasoline shortages, while the state-owned rail company SNCF estimates it has lost 400 million euros ($450 million) so far.

Philippe is preparing for another round of negotiations from Jan. 7 during which some elements of the plan could be dialed back or even dropped as the government courts professions like the police, fire fighters, air traffic controllers and opera employees.

(Updates with high-speed trains in fifth paragraph)

To contact the reporter on this story: Geraldine Amiel in Paris at gamiel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chad Thomas at cthomas16@bloomberg.net, Ben Sills

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