French strikers angry about pension reform cut power to homes, companies

Men in firefighters' uniforms wave flags of the French trade union General Confederation of Labour and burn flares as they take part in a demonstration in Paris on Dec 17, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (REUTERS) - France's warring trade unions on Wednesday (Dec 18) defended their decision to cut power to thousands of homes, companies and even the Bank of France to force a weakened government to drop a wide-ranging pension reform.

The power cuts added to a sense of chaos in the second week of nationwide strikes that have crippled transport, shut schools and brought more than half a million people onto the street against President Emmanuel Macron's reform.

Asked on French radio whether the power cuts, illegal under French law, weren't a step too far, Mr Philippe Martinez, the head of the hardline CGT union, said the cuts were necessary to force Mr Macron to back down.

"I understand these workers' anger," the mustachioed union leader said. "These are targeted cuts. You'll understand that spitting on the public service can make some of us angry."

His remarks coincided with comments by Mr Macron's office saying the president ruled out abandoning his reform plans but was keen to make improvements in talks with unions, ahead of a new day of talks between his prime minister and union leaders.

The government is keen to reach a truce before Christmas, when millions of French people travel to their home place to spend the holiday with their families.

Mr Macron's transport minister condemned the power cuts, which hit at least 150,000 homes on Tuesday according to the French power grid, and said the government would ask the grid company to file complaints.

"I hear they're cutting power to CAC 40 companies, prefectures, shopping malls. That's already rather questionable," Ms Elisabeth Borne said, referring to an index of blue chip companies on the French stock market.

"But clinics, metro stations, fire brigades and thousands of French people also saw power cuts. This is far from normal ways of striking," she said.

The hardening union tactics came just as Mr Macron was forced to change the lead negotiator for the reform, naming a lawmaker from his party to replace pensions tsar Jean-Paul Delevoye, who resigned following accusations of conflicts of interest.

Mr Macron wants to turn the myriad of French pension systems into a single points-based one.

That would force employees at state-backed companies such as the national railways company SNCF or power utility EDF, who currently enjoy more generous pension plans than private-sector workers, to work longer.

Train drivers at SNCF can retire at just over 50, for instance, against 62 for those in the private sector. That means French taxpayers have to plug in the deficit of the railway company's pension system to the tune of €3 billion (S$4.52 billion) every year.

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