PARIS: A labour walkout that has frustrated Paris commuters and marooned thousands of holiday travellers in France dragged into its 29th day on Thursday, becoming the country’s longest continuous railway strike with no end in sight.

The standoff over the government’s plan to merge 42 pension schemes into a single, points-based system has seen workers at the state-owned SNCF railway company and Paris’ RATP public transport operator down tools since Dec 5.

Hundreds of thousands of strikers and their supporters have turned out for three mass rallies in recent weeks. Rail workers were joined by teachers, hospital workers and other public-sector employees angry about the overhaul, which they fear will leave pensioners poorer.

The previous longest SNCF strike, over salary and working conditions, lasted for 28 days in 1986 and early 1987.

The latest action has crippled public transport, particularly in Paris and its outskirts, and severely disrupted regional and long-distance trains, with thousands having to cancel or modify their plans for the year-end holidays.

Workers on strike forfeit their salary, and by Thursday the participation rate had dropped to under seven per cent of the SNCF workforce — the lowest since the protest started. The levels are higher among some categories, with about a third of train drivers off work.

Two days have been set aside for fresh negotiations starting on Tuesday next week, followed by another day of mass mobilisation called by unions for Jan 9.

As many Parisians returned to work on Thursday after their holiday breaks, the transport situation remained bleak, with suburban trains slashed and only two metro lines out of 16 — the only driverless ones — providing normal service.

Regional and intercity trains, too, were severely affected and the SNCF said international lines including the Eurostar and Thalys services were again “disrupted”.

In his New Year’s address, President Emmanuel Macron vowed not to back down from the plan that would require many to work longer to earn a full pension.

The president’s insistence prompted Philippe Martinez, leader of the hardline CGT union, to call for strikes “everywhere” starting next week, “in the public and the private sector”.

The government says the pension overhaul is needed to create a fairer system. But workers object to the inclusion of a so-called pivot age of 64 which people would have to work until to earn a full pension — two years beyond the official retirement age.

Critics fear the new pension system will effectively encourage the growth of US-style private pension funds.

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2020