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France begins pension talks with labor unions

by SYLVIE CORBET The Associated Press | December 19, 2019 at 4:12 a.m. | Updated December 19, 2019 at 4:12 a.m.
A lone commuter waits at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris on Wednesday. More photos at (AP/Michel Euler)

PARIS -- The French government opened negotiations with labor unions Wednesday on potential changes to a landmark pension overhaul bill that sparked crippling transportation strikes and protests across the country.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe met with union leaders and employer group representatives after French President Emmanuel Macron asked his government to hold talks on possible amendments to the overhaul package.

The general strike that started Dec. 5 affected train and subway service as drivers remained off the job. Teachers, doctors and other workers joined the walkouts, and hundreds of thousands of people participated in nationwide protests.

An agreement with hard-left unions appeared to be a way off. The leader of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, acknowledged a "deep disagreement" with the prime minister after their meeting.

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"We have two clashing perspectives," Martinez said. "We don't have the same values."

The government is seeking to reach a deal with more moderate unions, which Macron hopes may weaken the protest movement.

A close aide to Macron, who spoke anonymously in accordance with customary practices, said the president "won't abandon the project" but is "willing to improve it." Macron himself was not planning to get involved in the negotiations or to make an announcement in coming days.

Among the changes is raising by two years the age at which people would be eligible to retire with a full pension, arguably the main target of worker opposition. The proposal to increase the state-sanctioned retirement age from 62 to 64 is currently scheduled for 2027.

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Officially, the government has said very little about the areas on which it would be willing to compromise. Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye called the higher retirement age a "proposal."

Macron's planned changes are aimed at unifying France's 42 different pension systems into one, which would abolish special provisions allowing certain workers to retire as early as their 50s. The changes also are intended to keep the pension system financially viable, according to the government.

"We must find a compromise," Macron's aide said.

With Christmas approaching, Macron and his government are seeking to pile the pressure on unions for a "pause" in the strikes during the holiday period so families can get around the country.

Some unions, though, want the strikes to continue over the holidays.

The government plans to formally present the pension bill in January. The text will then need to be approved by parliament, where Macron's party has a majority.

On Wednesday, Macron appointed a junior minister for pensions, Laurent Pietraszewski, a 53-year-old lawmaker with expertise on the issue.

The nomination comes two days after the minister who had developed the new pension system, Jean-Paul Delevoye, resigned over potential conflicts of interest in a major blow to the government.

The government had long hoped that France's largest union, the center-left, reformist CFDT, would back the pension changes.

CFDT Secretary-General Laurent Berger has said he was in favor of a "universal and fair" new system but that delaying the introduction of the new age of retirement was a "red line."

His union joined the protest movement last week after the government detailed the planned measures.

Berger said after Wednesday's talks that he sensed the French government wanted to "discuss and open up" but he thinks "we are very, very far" from an agreement to end the impasse at this stage.

The head of the moderate UNSA union, Laurent Escure, noted Wednesday that the government moved its position somewhat, especially on measures to help those working in harsh conditions.

Another round of negotiations was scheduled for today.

A Section on 12/19/2019

Print Headline: France begins pension talks with labor unions


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