PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron's government suffered a major blow Monday when the key architect of the pension overhaul resigned over alleged conflicts of interests, on the 12th day of transport strikes against the planned changes.
The announcement came at a crucial time: just before a new round of protests planned Tuesday across France and as the government was preparing for last-minute talks with workers' unions ahead of the Christmas season.
The French presidency said Macron accepted “with regret” the resignation of High Commissioner Jean-Paul Delevoye, a 72-year-old politician who prepared the pension plans for two years before being appointed in September to drive the reform program.
He was notably in charge of talks with workers' unions and professional organizations.
Macron's office stressed Delevoye's “work and commitment” and said the decision was needed in order to preserve the next steps of reform.
Delevoye was under fire from the opposition and unions after French newspaper Le Parisien and Le Monde reported last week that he hadn't mentioned some of his activities in the formal declaration required from all government members to avoid potential conflicts of interests.
Delevoye acknowledged a “mistake," saying he “forgot” to declare several positions, some in the insurance and banking sectors, a think tank and one at the foundation of national rail company SNCF.
Macron's office said Delevoye will be replaced “as soon as possible.”
Macron has said he wants the government to push ahead with the pension changes, which include raising the age of retirement with full pension from 62 to 64 and ending special privileges for some workers.
Last week, the government opened the door for new negotiations, suggesting it was ready to make some changes to its plans. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is expected to meet with union leaders by the end of the week.
Meanwhile, major unions stated that they want to push the strike through Christmas.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire advocated Monday on news broadcaster BFM television for the retirement age of 64 as “a reasonable solution.”
He also called on rail workers to end the strikes before the Christmas school holidays that start Friday evening, a period during which millions of French are expected to travel for family celebrations.
The government plans to formally present the pension bill in January. It will then be debated in parliament, where Macron's party has the majority.
Authorities measured a record traffic jam of 630 kilometers (390 miles) Monday morning in the Paris region, where only two Metro lines, using automated trains with no drivers, were fully running. The other 14 metro lines were closed or only very partially running.
Most regional and national trains were at a standstill. International train routes also suffered disruptions.
Truck drivers launched a separate protest movement Monday morning, staging road blockages across France to demand better salaries and working conditions.
The strikes involve mostly public sector workers, including train drivers, teachers and hospital employees, who fear they will have to work longer for lower pensions.
Polls suggest most French support the protest movement. Yet some commuters were losing patience Monday in Paris as they waited for rare trains on overflowing platforms.
Laurence Sturm came from the town of Troyes, east of Paris, to work in the capital. She told The Associated Press that the strike cost her hotel nights and some of her days off “just to be able to go to work.”
Unions “are fighting for their privileges, and we are paying for it,” she said. "I’ll never be able to retire at 55 or 60 years old. I’ll have to work until 64 years old to get a full pension, and I’m paying for theirs.”
Nadine Achoui-Lesage contributed to the story.