Tensions mount over French transport strike

The French capital Paris and its environs remained the worst hit by the strikes, with only the two driverless Metro lines in the capital in operation. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 December 2019

Tensions mount over French transport strike

  • Strike organizers announce a massive protest for Tuesday when tens of thousands are expected to take to the streets again
  • Unions are opposed to proposed reforms that would do away with the 42 separate pension systems

PARIS: Tensions between the French government and unions opposed to pension reforms mounted Sunday as a crippling transport strike entered its 11th day.
The overhaul, unveiled this week by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, would do away with the 42 separate pension systems — some of which offer early retirement and other benefits to public-sector employees such as train drivers, dockers and even Paris Opera employees.
Philippe angered unions further by proposing a reduced payout for people who retire at the legal age of 62 instead of a new, so-called “pivot age” of 64.
Strike organizers have announced a massive protest for Tuesday when tens of thousands are expected to take to the streets again.
Unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when they forced a rightwing government to back down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail strikes just before Christmas.
The prospect of a protracted standoff has businesses fearing big losses during the crucial year-end festivities, and travelers worried that their holiday plans will fall through.
Philippe told the Parisien daily in an interview for its Sunday edition that the French would not accept being “deprived” of festive transport options.
“I can well see that everyone is worried as they see Christmas near. Christmas is an important time,” he said.
On Friday, he asked SNCF chief Jean-Pierre Farandou to draw up a list of exactly which trains would be running during the festive season.
But the unions have said they will not give in — and that the government would have to.
“If the government wants the conflict to end before the holidays, they have all of next week to take the wise decision and scrap the point-based pension plan,” Laurent Blum, the general secretary of the hard-line CGT-Cheminots, the main SNCF union, said.
France’s moderate CFDT union joined the action after the government’s announcement that those who retire before the “pivot age” of 64 would not receive a full pension.
“It’s very simple: for the CFDT to take another look at this bill, the government must agree to withdraw the pivot age. One point, that’s all,” CFDT leader Laurent Berger told Le Journal du Dimanche.
“It is deeply unfair to ask those who were born in 1960 and who are due to retire in 2022 to work longer,” he added.
If the government does not give ground, the CFDT will also call for industrial action in January, after Tuesday’s strike, said Berger, who is not opposed to reform of the current pension system.
Berger said CFDT railway workers did not want a strike over the holiday season.
“I don’t wish to block transport for Christmas. We should not make users pay the bill ... We have to break this deadlock,” he said.
The prime minister has held talks with union leaders and more negotiations are scheduled over the coming week.
Philippe on Friday struck a combative note, saying he “has absolutely no fear of implementing this reform.”
The architect of the overhaul, pensions commissioner Jean-Paul Delevoye, has been hit by suspicions of conflicts of interest after several omissions in his declaration of interests, which he has since amended.
Under the French constitution, members of the government are prohibited from carrying out “any professional activity” in addition to their official functions.
The prime minister however stressed Saturday that he had faith in Delevoye and dismissed talk of his resignation.
President Emmanuel Macron’s government insists the changes will make for a fairer system and help erase pension-system deficits forecast to reach as much as €17 billion ($19 billion) by 2025.
The average French person retires at just over 60 — years earlier than most in Europe or other rich OECD countries.
Train traffic was expected to be severely disrupted Sunday with only one out four TGV high speed long-distance trains and a third of regional trains running across the country, operator SNCF said.
But Paris and its environs remained the worst hit. Only the two driverless Metro lines in the capital were going to be in operation and there were skeletal transport services between the city and its suburbs.


Morocco, Spain to hold talks about overlapping territorial waters

Updated 25 January 2020

Morocco, Spain to hold talks about overlapping territorial waters

  • The territorial waters Morocco has claimed include the coast off Western Sahar
  • The territory has been contested between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front since the Spanish colonial period ended in 1975

RABAT: The Moroccan and Spanish foreign ministers said on Friday their countries would hold talks about overlapping areas of ocean that they both claim rights to in the North Atlantic.
The territorial waters Morocco has claimed include the coast off Western Sahara, a territory that has been contested between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front since the Spanish colonial period ended in 1975.
Morocco’s parliament passed two bills this week to give domestic legal cover to a coastal area the North African country already controls, causing concern in Spain’s Canary Islands, where the government warned of overlaps with Spanish territorial waters.
Morocco’s foreign minister Nasser Bourita said that defining territorial waters was a “sovereign right” and that his country aimed to upgrade domestic law in compliance with the UN law of the sea convention.
“In case of overlaps, international law requires states to negotiate,” said Bourita following talks with his Spanish peer, Arancha Gonzalez Laya.
“Morocco rejects unilateral acts and fait accompli,” he said, adding that Spain was a “strategic partner” and Morocco’s largest trading partner.
Gonzalez Laya said Morocco’s willingness to negotiate “reassures the Canary Islands.”
“Morocco is a source of stability for Spain,” she said, citing “close cooperation” in the fight against jihadists and illegal migration.