November 27, 2019 / 4:35 PM / 17 days ago

France will soften, not give up pension reform ahead of strikes

PARIS (Reuters) - The French government is willing to compromise on its pension reform but will not abandon plans to rebuild a system that allows some workers to retire in their fifties, it said on Wednesday, a week before a planned transport workers’ strike.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe attends a news conference after the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris, France November 27, 2019. Alain Jocard/Pool via REUTERS

President Emmanuel Macron was elected in May 2017 on a pledge to overhaul the generous social security system and has promised to introduce a points-based pensions system under which all workers will have the same rights.

But as his centrist government is working on a first draft of the pension reform, unions at state-owned rail and metro operators - where some workers can retire in their early fifties - plan a nationwide transport strike on Dec. 5.

“The government is determined to build a universal pension system ... but we will take the time we need to get there,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told a news conference.

He said he favours a compromise between “an immediate and brutal transition” that would make the reforms applicable to people born after 1963, and a “grandfathering” clause that would impact only people entering the labour market from 2025.

France’s official retirement age is 62, but it has more than 40 different pension systems, with some allowing workers to retire in their mid- to late fifties or even their early fifties for Paris subway conductors.

Philippe said workers will be able to hang on to “acquired rights” but said the government is determined to end special pension regimes.

“The system of corporatist solidarity is no longer suitable for this day and age and has created injustices,” he said.

Leftist opposition parties and the more radical unions reject the pension reform plan, but the moderate CFDT union agrees with the principle of a points-based pension.

Next week’s transport strike will be a key test of the unions’ determination and of Macron’s ability to continue reforms in the second half of his five-year mandate. Civil servants and energy sector workers will join the protest.

In the first year of his term, Macron made labour law more flexible and in June 2018 his government ended the special benefits for new workers joining the SNCF state railway.

But the eruption late last year of often-violent “yellow vest” protests against the high cost of living crimped Macron’s reform drive and several planned measures have been shelved.

The government will reveal a draft of the pension reform around Dec. 9 or 10 and parliament will vote on it early 2020.

Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Sophie Louet; Writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Lisa Shumaker

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