French President Macron calls for Christmas truce in transport strikes over pension reform

Commuters and travellers stand in a crowded Gare de Lyon train station in Paris, France, on Dec 20, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ABIDJAN/PARIS (REUTERS, AP, XINHUA) - French President Emmanuel Macron called on transport unions to suspend strikes over pension reform during the Christmas holidays to avoid travel disruption.

"Strike action is justifiable and protected by the Constitution, but I think there are moments in a nation's life when it is good to observe a truce out of respect for families and family life," Mr Macron said during a news conference in Ivory Coast where he was on a visit.

Two weeks of nationwide industrial action against Mr Macron's planned overhaul of the pension system that includes raising the retirement age to 64 and the scrapping of special regimes for sectors like the railways, have crippled train services.

Despite calls by some unions to suspend strikes during the festive season, several rail worker groups are continuing stoppages as travellers head off on holiday.

Mr Macron said a strike pause would not mean unions had abandoned their demands, but would show "the sense of responsibility and the respect owed to French people who are sometimes apart and wish to be reunited during this festive period".

National rail operator SNCF continued to run reduced services on Saturday, including half the usual number of its high-speed TGV trains.

French travellers and tourists were struggling on Saturday to get to their destinations as the Christmas season ramped up amid continuing strikes.

Train travel problems were slightly eased on Saturday with a plan from SNCF to inform passengers several days in advance and propose ticket exchanges.

Still, only half of the high-speed trains were running and regional trains, including in the Paris region, remained severely disrupted.

In the French capital, eight of the 14 metro lines were closed and many others were running erratically.

In Paris' Saint-Lazare train station, serving western France, Mr Jean Baptiste Beudon was relieved to see his train was not cancelled.

"We got confirmation two or three days before the departure, but we were still worried that we would not have our train," he told the Associated Press.

Millions of French are expected to travel in the next few days for Christmas family reunions. Many have sought alternative modes of transport, using car-sharing services or bus companies, which have seen a surge in reservations.

Most transport unions have called for the strikes to continue during the holidays, as talks between the prime minister and labour leaders failed to reach a compromise this week.

Recent polls show a majority of French still support the strikes over fears they will have to work longer in return for lower pensions - but a majority are also in favour of the suspension of the protest during the Christmas holidays.

In a move to support his government's plan to reform the existing pension system, President Macron announced that he would give up in advance his future pension as a president. The presidential residence Elysee Palace, which announced his decision to the French media on Saturday night (Dec 21), said the president wanted to show "consistency" through his action.

"Consistency" means that the law on former presidents' pensions will no longer apply to any president in the future, said the Elysee. Under the French law, former heads of state have a pension equivalent to the salary of a state councilor, or 6,220 euros (about S$9,340) per month. This amount is not subject to any age condition, term of office or income limit.

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