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World News

War of attrition: how France's Macron plans to grind down strikers

PARIS (Reuters) - When French trade unions declared a nationwide strike to protest against planned pension reforms, Nicolas, a 34-year-old maintenance technician with the Paris metro, went on strike for three straight weeks. Then he went back to work.

“It was a financial thing,” he said as he headed home after working an early shift on the metro, explaining his return to the job. While on strike he forfeited 1,000 euros ($1,114) in salary, money he needs to support his 2 1/2-year-old daughter.

He still contributes to his union’s strike fund, and goes out on strike for a day or two at a time, but says that he cannot join the all-out, indefinite strike that union leaders have sought.

Forty-two days into the strike -- now the longest since the 1960s -- there are still protests and disruption of public transport in Paris.

But the financial pressures facing Nicolas and people like him are one reason the strikes, aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to back down on his planned pension reform, have not had the impact union leaders sought.

Data collated by Reuters from public transport agencies shows the impact of the strike is on the wane.

For example, the average share of railways staff on strike in the past 7 days was 12%, compared with 29% in the first week.

That plays into the strategy of Macron’s administration, which believes it can eventually win the stand-off by wearing down the strikers, according to four people close to Macron’s administration who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

A government minister said of the strikers: “It’s starting to hit wallets.”

Nicolas, a 34-year-old maintenance technician with the Paris metro, poses at the Gare du Nord bus station in Paris, France, January 14, 2020. Picture taken January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Another pro-Macron lawmaker said the strikes had not had the same nationwide breadth as walkouts in 1995 prompted by a previous pension reform. “France was not paralysed,” he said. “Of course that’s helping us.”

HARD TIMES

In the biggest overhaul of France’s state pension system since World War Two, Macron wants to end privileges for some professions and provide incentives for people to stay in work longer.

Faced with the strike, he has softened the impact for some professions and provisionally withdrawn a measure that would extend the retirement age by two years for many people.

But he has shown no sign of bowing to the demand of hardline unions that he ditch the reform altogether. Winning the standoff would strengthen his hand to embark on further pro-business reforms as he eyes re-election in 2022.

Nicolas, the metro worker, spends his working life walking the filthy metro tunnels making sure electricity connections are sound. He earns 2,200 euros in an average month.

Losing his income on strike days has been tough, especially as his wife, who works in theatre costume departments, did not work in December.

“You shouldn’t feel any shame about going back to work if you have personal issues,” said Nicolas, who did not want his surname published to protect his family’s privacy.

Speaking at Paris’ Gare du Nord station before catching his train home to the suburbs, he said his belief in the strike was undimmed. But he added: “I never thought when we started on Dec. 5 we’d still be on strike today.”

($1 = 0.8973 euros)

Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier; Writing by Michel Rose and Christian Lowe; editing by Mike Collett-White

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