High-speed trains are pictured at Gare du Nord train station in Paris, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. With French President Emmanuel Macron under heavy pressure over his pension reform plans, government officials are meeting with employers and unions on Wednesday to consider the way forward. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

France on strike: New protests in Paris, negotiations resume

December 19, 2019 - 3:41 am

PARIS (AP) — Traffic improved slightly on French trains Thursday as nationwide strikes over the government's retirement reform entered a 15th day and small signs of progress emerged in negotiations with unions.

However, the crisis hitting one of the world's biggest economies at the height of the holiday season is far from over.

Anti-government protesters are keeping up pressure on President Emmanuel Macron with a new march through Paris in the afternoon. And some workers are expected to maintain their strike through the Christmas holidays and beyond.

The SNCF national rail authority said about 60% of trains were at a standstill Thursday, down from 90% earlier in the strike. While provincial cities have suffered fewer problems, tourists and Paris commuters alike are still struggling to get around the French capital, spending hours fighting through clogged intersections or waiting for elusive subway trains.

The centrist Macron, a former investment banker, wants to raise the retirement age to 64 and says the current pension system costs too much; unions say the pension reform is part of Macron's plans to dismantle hard-won worker rights, and want to preserve a system that allows some workers to leave as early as their 50s.

Macron showed willingness Wednesday to compromise, and his prime minister launched negotiations with unions on potential amendments to the landmark pension reform bill. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will meet again with union leaders and employers' representatives Thursday.

The government hopes to reach a deal with more moderate players such as France's largest union, CFDT, which Macron hopes may divide and weaken the protest movement.

CFDT Secretary General Laurent Berger said Thursday the government showed a "willingness to discuss" the issue.

He acknowledged that given lengthening life expectancy and the high cost of France's pension system, “yes, we will have to work a bit longer" — but said if the government doesn't abandon the idea of a fixed new retirement age of 64 by January, his union will continue to protest.

Recent polls show a majority of the French support the strikes and protests, as they fear the proposals will make them work longer in return for lower pensions.

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