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French unions: Keep retirement strikes going through January

PARIS – France’s punishing transportation troubles may ease up slightly over Christmas — but unions plan renewed strikes and protests in January to resist government plans to raise the retirement age to 64.

Talks between the prime minister and labor leaders failed to reach a compromise on Thursday — day 15 of nationwide strikes by train drivers and other workers that have stymied tourists and commuters alike.

Protesters kept up the pressure on President Emmanuel Macron with a lively march Thursday through Paris, banging tambourines and demanding that he scrap his signature retirement reform.

“The government should hit the stop button and go back to the beginning,” the head of hard-left FO union, Yves Veyrier, said after Thursday's talks.

His union and the similarly tough CGT announced new nationwide protests Jan. 9, and said they saw no reason to abandon the strike movement.

The centrist Macron, a former investment banker, says the current pension system is unfair and costs too much; unions say the pension reform threatens hard-won worker rights, and want to preserve a system that allows some workers to retire as early as their 50s.

However, small signs of progress are starting to emerge — along with divisions among France’s many labor unions.

The UNSA union announced a “pause” in its railway strike for the end-of-year holidays, when families crisscross the country to be together.

The SNCF rail authority said about half its trains should be running over the weekend. That’s up from just 10 percent earlier in the strike.

Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union, said the government is showing increasing “openness” to reconsider parts of the retirement bill.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced some potential adjustments Thursday – but firmly defended the new retirement age.

Earlier Thursday, demonstrators marched through Paris' historic Bastille plaza, waving red flares, banging tambourines and singing anti-Macron songs.

The crowd was small but determined. Some wore Santa hats, or the yellow vests that symbolize the year-old French movement against economic injustice.

“You cannot do a laborious difficult job in a hospital and treat ageing patients if you are 64 years old," said protester Myriam Pidoux, a psychologist in a public hospital.

"You’ve never seen a 64-year-old nurse working – at least not in France,"

Unemployed activist Agnes Berger lamented the confusion over the new retirement system will work.

“It’s nebulous, a lot of hot air ... in our view, this is a manoeuver to see if the French are lobotomized to the point where (the government) can push through whatever it likes," she told The Associated Press.

Macron suffered a fresh blow Thursday as the Paris prosecutor's office announced a preliminary investigation into possible conflicts of interest by the architect of the reform, Jean-Paul Delevoye.

Delevoyer r esigned his post earlier this week after admitting he had failed to publicly declare all of his affiliations when taking on the pension project.

Recent polls show a majority of the French still support the strikes and protests over fears they will have to work longer in return for lower pensions.

While provincial cities have suffered fewer problems, tourists and commuters in Paris are spending hours every day fighting through clogged intersections or elbowing their way onto elusive subway trains.