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Sour notes for Macron from striking Paris Opera musicians

JOHN LEICESTER
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France Strikes

Striking musicians of the Paris Opera house perform outside the Bastille Opera house Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019 in Paris. Banner reads : Paris Opera on strike. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a compromise between his government and unions over plans to change the pension system that have led to sustained strikes — including from Paris Opera musicians who staged a street concert in rebellion.

In a spirited, makeshift performance, Paris Opera musicians played excerpts Tuesday from “Carmen” and “Romeo and Juliet” on the front steps of the Opera Bastille, which served as a dramatic reminder of the rocky start to 2020 that awaits Macron.

Tuesday marked the 27th consecutive day of transport strikes. The Versailles Palace, usually a huge tourist draw, said it was closed Tuesday because of strikes, too.

In his televised New Year's address, Macron said the pension overhaul “will be carried out" but called on his government to "find the path of a quick compromise” as negotiations with unions resume in early January.

Seeking to ease tensions, he suggested people with painful work will be allowed early retirement.

Yet Macron stayed firm on the principles of the reform, including its most decried measure: raising the eligibility age for full pensions from 62 to 64. He insisted that the new system will be fairer and financially sustainable.

“My only compass is our country's interest," he said.

Musicians who have put down their instruments since open-ended strikes started Dec. 5 reveled in the chance to play for the crowd that gathered to hear them on Paris' Place de la Bastille, the site of an infamous prison stormed by a revolutionary mob on July 14, 1789, and then demolished.

“We're all at the bottom of a deep hole being unable to play since Dec. 5,” said violinist Emilie Belaud.

But, she added, orchestra members are determined to hold firm. The Paris Opera has had to cancel all its scheduled ballets and operas since Dec. 5 — 63 performances in all.

“If the government persists in being stubborn and refusing to negotiate in good conditions, we'll carry on," Belaud vowed.

The crowd chanted for the abandonment of the retirement overhaul. They also cried, “We're united! General strike!”

Macron wants to unify France’s 42 different pension plans into a single one, giving all workers the same general rights.

Paris Opera workers said that if applied to them, such changes would make their working conditions unbearable. Currently, its dancers can retire at age 42, stage technicians and chorus singers at age 57, and musicians at age 60.

Union delegate Matthias Bergmann said pushing back retirement ages would come at the expense of employees' health and damage the world-recognized quality of Paris Opera performances.

“When they say, ‘62 or 64,’ we say, ‘You must be mad,’" he said. “We have lots of technicians with busted backs because of all they've carried over the years.”

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AP writer Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.