Journeys home for Christmas face snarls as unions appear unlikely to call off strikes

Millions of people in France face the likelihood of a miserable journey home this Christmas, as strikes that have crippled the public transit system continue and hundreds of thousands of angry workers and their supporters take to the streets.

The strikes, which several unions called for in response to proposed pension reforms, began on Dec 5 and are expected to continue into January.

A survey by polling agency Ifop that was published on Tuesday in the newspaper Le Figaro found that 55 percent of respondents believed a continuation of the strike over the Christmas period would be “unacceptable”, although it was unclear which side they would blame for such a disruption.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has predicted the French people, who travel at this time of year to be with their families, will lose patience with the unions because of the timing of the strikes.

“Christmas is an important time,” he told Le Parisien newspaper while urging the unions to “assume their responsibilities” and call off the walkouts that have closed schools and crippled ports, oil refineries, airports, restaurants and shopping malls.

He said the strikes have caused a great deal of inconvenience, but added that people were getting on with their lives.

“Things are not completely blocked, but it’s bothersome,” he said.

The likelihood of the unions calling off the strikes appeared remote. France 24, the state-owned television news network, said this week that tension between the French government and the trade unions had ramped up, with each side blaming the other for failing to find a resolution, and each saying the other was responsible for threatening the holiday season.

Earlier, Philippe tried to appeal directly to striking workers and to the French public by saying in a televised speech that proposed reforms would make the complicated French system, with 42 separate state pensions, more straightforward and fair.

“The time has come to build a universal pension system,” he said. “We do not want to leave anybody (behind).”

Philippe has said changes brought in now will only fully apply to people who enter the workforce after 2022 and will have no impact on people born before 1975.

A poll this week in Le Journal du Dimanche found that 54 percent of French people surveyed either supported the strikers or felt sympathetic toward them-up from 46 percent a few weeks ago. Thirty percent of those polled opposed the strikes outright.

The unions have said the proposed reforms-which promise workers a minimum monthly pension of 1,000 euros ($1,110)-would also mean people will have to work until they are 64, instead of 62 as it now stands.

Laurent Berger, general secretary of the usually moderate CFDT union, told the Guardian newspaper that “a red line has been crossed” and said the unions fear the pension overhaul is the start of the dismantling of France’s generous social safety net.

Philippe Martinez, secretary-general of the hardline CGT union, told BFMTV that striking transportation workers would return to work before Christmas if the government would abandon its reform plans.

But the French railway company SNCF said it may already be too late.

Company spokeswoman Rachel Picard told Le Parisien that “we’re going to try to make miracles happen” but said many services would have too little time to bounce back.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised interview that he feels “solidarity” with the millions of people affected by the strikes, but he added that the “historic reform” would go ahead.

The unions held their latest day of mass protests on Tuesday. The mobilization followed a strike on Sunday that left only two working subway lines in Paris out of the city’s 16. In addition, almost all regional and national rail services were canceled.

ITV News reported a 630-kilometer traffic jam in the Paris region on Monday as truck drivers set up roadblocks.

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