In the final week before Christmas, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and government ministers sat down for wide-ranging talks with France's unions, who are at present engaged in unlimited strike action in protest at the proposed reforms to the country's pension system.
Union leader Philippe Martinez faces the press after talks ended before Christmas. Photo: AFP
What's the problem with the reform plans?
The government wants to scrap the current highly complicated French pension system, which has 42 different regimes in place, meaning that people earning the same salary but in different professions have wildly different pension pots and retirement ages. The government says this is unfair and too complicated and wants to introduce a universal system so everyone's pension is calculated in the same way.
Read more about the proposals here – What you need to know about the French government's pension reforms
But unions say this will lead to people working longer for smaller pensions, and also discriminates against people working in the public sector, who tend to have lower salaries but more generous pensions.
And has there been any progress in the talks?
There has been some, and there were definitely some positive vibes after the second day of meetings on December 19th, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe saying there had been “advances”.
However the talks ended on Friday, December 20th and will now not restart until January 7th, so there seems to be no hope of a breakthrough before then.
France's largest union – the relatively moderate CFDT – has already said that it is willing to accept the reforms if the government will scrap the idea of introducing a 'pivot age'. One of the more controversial aspects of the reforms is the idea of keeping the legal retirement age at 62, but introducing a 'pivot age' of 64, when a fuller pension would kick in.
“It's very simple: for the CFDT to take another look at this bill, the government must agree to withdraw the pivot age. One point, that's all,” CFDT leader Laurent Berger told Le Journal du Dimanche.
However over the weekend both the government and the unions engaged in something of a public slanging match through the pages of Sunday newspapers, with Deputy Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari accusing the hardline CGT union of a “systematic opposition to any reform” while the union's chief Philippe Martinez charged the government with strewing “chaos” in the conflict.
Striking workers ask Santa for 'the revolution' for Christmas. Photo: AFP
So that sounds a bit of a mixed picture?
Yes, and some of the more hardline unions – including the CGT and Sud-Rail – are still adamant that they will only go back to work once the government scraps the bill altogether.
Where it gets complicated is that France has many different unions and does not have one single TUC to speak for them all, so really it's a series of negotiations.
The CFDT is France's largest union, but the CGT and Sud-Rail are heavily represented among rail workers – about 60 percent of SNCF train drivers belong to one or the other – so they still have the capacity to cause significant disruption on the railways.
That said, strikes in France only truly bring the country to a standstill when all the unions work together, actions by single unions have far less of an impact.
So what next?
Talks restart on January 7th and in the meantime it seems like the strikes will go on.
In general as long-term strikes go on more and more workers – who do not get paid during strikes – return to work and services gradually get less disrupted as time goes on.
Unions have already announced another 'day of protest' for Thursday, January 9th.
The resumed talks will likely hinge on the series of concessions that president Emmanuel Macron has authorised his Prime Minister to offer.
Among these are how the transition to the new system would work. The government has already pushed back the implementation on this once – originally the changes would apply to anyone born after 1963, but now would only apply to those born after 1975. Nevertheless the Prime Minister has said he is willing to discuss the idea of applying some changes only to new entrants to the workforce.
There could also be concessions around minimum contributions and phrased retirement for certain professions such as healthcare workers.
And there's also good news for anyone worried about elderly ballerinas.
Dancers from the Paris Opera had been on strike – and had put on an outdoor performance of Swan Lake in a change to the usual form on picket lines – in protest at the loss of their own 'special regime' of early retirement.
The government has now offered a series on concessions to the ballet dancers, proposing that the pensions reforms only come into force for dancers recruited after January 1, 2022, according to a document, dated December 23rd, seen by AFP.
The government, in its letter to the dancers, also proposed a professional conversion plan for dancers reaching the end of their career.