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France strike grinds down commuters in crunch week for Macron

Clare BYRNE
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Most Paris metro lines were shut completely on Monday leading to huge traffic jams -- similar disruption is expected on Tuesday

Travellers across France endured a fifth day of turmoil on Monday caused by massive strike action over government's plans to overhaul the pension system, as officials tried to persuade union bosses to call off the action.

Unions rejected the government's overtures and have vowed to keep up the fight over the reforms, which are set to be finalised and published on Wednesday.

Another mass demonstration is planned in Paris and other cities for Tuesday, with teachers and other workers once again expected to walk out alongside transport workers.

The unions want President Emmanuel Macron to abandon his plan for a single pension scheme that would scrap dozens of individual ones enjoyed by train drivers, sailors, lawyers and other professions.

Critics say it will force millions to work later in life to get the same benefits but Macron has promised not to touch the official retirement age of 62.

Most Paris metro lines were shut completely on Monday leading to huge traffic jams -- similar disruption is expected on Tuesday.

Just one in five high-speed TGV trains were running, and Air France has cut 25 percent of domestic flights scheduled for Tuesday and 10 percent of its shorter international flights.

Some Paris museums were again forced to partially close and both opera houses cancelled again cancelled performances.

Many people chose to work from home last week and are only now returning to work, making this week a crucial test of public support for the strike.

"Psychologically it's stressful because you don't know if you're going to get where you need to," said Benit Ntende as he waited for a train at Paris' Saint-Lazare station.

"You have to wake up earlier -- it's one of the joys of life in Paris."

Some 53 percent of French backed the strike or at least had sympathy for the workers' demands, according to a poll published on Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

- 'Monstrosity' endangering pensioners -

The government's pensions commissioner Jean-Paul Delevoye held a final meeting with union leaders on Monday to try to end the strike.

But unions appear in no mood for further negotiations -- 800,000 people turned out last Thursday at the start of the strike, the biggest show of strength in years.

"I will not negotiate over the implementation of what I describe as a monstrosity which endangers tomorrow's pensioners," said Yves Veyrier, head of the militant Force Ouvriere union.

Last week, transport workers were joined by teachers, firefighters, electricity workers and "yellow vest" anti-government demonstrators -- who launched weekly protests to demand improved living standards last year.

Hospital interns plan to walk out on Tuesday to highlight "degraded care" and lorry driver unions said they would take action next week.

The strike has already squeezed retailers in the run-up to Christmas, raising the prospect of another bleak year-end after the unrest caused by the yellow vests in late 2018.

"This weekend was catastrophic: Paris was empty, restaurants and brasseries, even fast-food was impacted, with some losing up to 50 percent of their sales," a spokesman for the GNI-Synhorcat alliance of restaurant and hotel owners said.

Jacques Baudoz, president of the Joueclub chain of toy stores, told Europe 1 radio that revenue dropped 20 percent at stores in larger cities.

Macron, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and senior cabinet ministers are set to meet on Tuesday night before presenting the finalised plan.

"If we do not carry out a far-reaching, serious and progressive reform today, someone else will do a really brutal one tomorrow," Philippe told Le Journal du Dimanche.

Unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995 when three weeks of strikes forced the then centre-right government to withdraw its pension reforms.

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