PARIS: A crippling French transport strike dragged into its 39th day on Sunday despite the government’s offer to withdraw the most contested measure of the pension reform plans that sparked the protest.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he would drop plans to increase the official retirement age to 64 from 62 in an effort to end a strike which has paralysed Paris and its suburbs, with bus, train and metro services all badly disrupted.

“I am willing to withdraw from the bill the short-term measure I had proposed,” said Philippe, prompting his boss French President Emmanuel Macron to dub the change “a constructive and responsible compromise”.

The more reformist trade unions — the FDT, Unsa and FRC — welcomed the announcement and said they were now ready to work with employers on the sustainable financing of the state pension system.

The Unsa union for national railway workers maintained its strike call on Sunday while recognising the government’s reconciliatory move.

The union “remains on strike ” but will return to the negotiating table, secretary general Didier Mathis said.

However the more hardline CGT, FO and Solidaires unions were standing firm, calling for the strike and protests to continue, including a major demonstration on January 16.

French rail operator the SNCF said it expected services to improve on Monday.

Nine of 10 high-speed TGV trains would run on French and international routes, it said — and commuters in and around Paris could expect seven out of 10 trains to operate.

CGT head Philippe Martinez played down the impact of the CFDT and Unsa’s readiness to resume negotiations, and spoke of internal splits within these groups.

“We will see” what these unions’ workers have to say on the issue, he said, reiterating his call for the government to withdraw the pension reforms completely which he described as “the major requirement of a majority of unions representing a majority of employees”. However the financial hit is weakening the resolve of some strikers.

“It is clear that some colleagues want to go back to work,” said one disillusioned Paris Metro worker during demonstrations on Saturday. “It’s going to get tricky financially,” he added.

Private sector workers have not followed the unions’ lead on the stoppage to turn the campaign into a true national strike.

The government was adamant that the strikers should now go back to work.

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2020