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Transit Strikes Continue In France As Unions Look To Put More Pressure On Government


Now to France, where trains have been disrupted, and the Paris subway has been largely paralyzed. Workers in France are protesting proposed changes to the country's retirement system, and the strike is now in its 29th day. That makes it the longest transport strike France has seen in modern times. There is no end in sight. Au contraire, the unions want to step up the pressure on the government. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in Paris.

Hey there, Eleanor.


KELLY: I can't imagine Day 29 of the metro not working. How are people dealing with this?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it has been really difficult, especially leading into the holidays. I mean, you know, you have shopping and parties to go to. The streets were snarled not just with cars that people had to take, but with scooters and bikes. It was insane. Of course, the metros were closed. You couldn't get anywhere.

KELLY: Yeah.

BEARDSLEY: But there's been a lull for the last week because of the holidays. But we're sort of anticipating renewed chaos on Monday. The government had asked for a holiday truce. The unions rejected it. The rail workers actually seem more determined than ever.

Take a listen to this. It's the sound from an incident this week when a Paris metro driver crossed the strike line. Her colleagues surrounded her on the platform and tried to block her from getting on the train.


BEARDSLEY: So yeah, tempers are high. But keep in mind, Mary Louise, that this is only a small minority of workers striking, but they can paralyze the system 'cause they're train drivers. And now one of the major unions is calling to ramp it up, like to block oil refineries.

KELLY: This sounds extreme over changes to the retirement system. What is it exactly that President Macron wants to do?

BEARDSLEY: Well, he said - you know, he ran on this in his campaign. He wants to simplify and streamline what he says is a complicated system with 42 different retirement plans into one national system. But he also wants to raise the retirement age where you can get a full pension to 64 from 62. And that's one of the reason the train workers are striking. Some of them, depending on the, you know, difficulty of their job, have been able to retire early. That would go. The government wants to get rid of special perks for train drivers. But you know what? Critics say the government has really done a poor job of explaining and selling this reform.

KELLY: And how is President Macron responding to all this turmoil? Does he sound as determined as ever to go ahead?

BEARDSLEY: He does, but he also sounds like he has a tin ear is what people are saying. You know, every New Year's Eve, the president gives an address, and he lays out a path for the future. And he makes the French feel good. If there are problems, he tries to calm their worries. He didn't do that. Here he is talking.


EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: So basically, Mary Louise, he said he's going to do the reform. He's said it's going to be a more egalitarian system and more just. But he just sort of repeated everything he said before. And he came across as detached and sort of above it all.

Unions were furious because they said he was acting like the strike had never even been happening. They say that Macron's plan will be less equal, less jobs and it's going to destroy a public system that was built on solidarity not only between rich and poor, but between different generations. He wants to turn it into a privatized system that will benefit the rich and pension funds who want a part of it.

KELLY: Eleanor, where does public opinion stand on this? Do people sympathize with the strikers?

BEARDSLEY: Just barely, Mary Louise. Fifty-one percent of the French support the strikers, and they're against the reform. They're also scared they're going to get less and have to work longer. But no one really understands the issues. I was at a New Year's Eve dinner party, and everyone was arguing over the table about what it would and wouldn't do. So we're just going to have to wait till Monday. Everyone is dreading the commute. And we'll see how things go.

KELLY: (Laughter) The dreaded Monday commute. That is NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

Wishing you all the best for the new year. And good luck with that Monday commute.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODEZENNE SONG, "SOUFFLE LE VENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.