French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe offered a major concession to unions contesting his government's overhaul of the pension system on Saturday, in a move aimed at ending strikes that are now in their fifth week.
Philippe said in a letter to unions and employers that he was prepared to withdraw plans to raise the retirement age for full pension benefits by two years to 64 if certain conditions are met.
He offered the concession after talks between the government and trade unions failed on Friday to break the deadlock. The reform-minded CFDT union, France's biggest, welcomed the move, saying in a statement that it showed "the government's will to find a compromise". The more hard-line CGT and FO unions have yet to respond.
The concession comes as marches against the reform took place on Saturday across the country. Around 149,000 protested in France with 21,000 taking to the streets in eastern Paris , according to official figures released by the French Ministry of the Interior.
Opponents of the reform are demonstrating against the government's plan to replace France's myriad of sector-specific pension schemes with a single points-based scheme.
The Paris protest turned violent on its fringes with police firing tear gas and charging groups smashing windows and lighting rubbish bins and billboards on fire. Several stores were ransacked as marchers brandished union flags and chanted defiantly: "We are still here!" and "Macron resign". Protests were also held in Marseille, Toulouse, Lyon and Nantes.
In one of President Emmanuel Macron's signature reforms, the government seeks to fuse 42 existing pension schemes into a single, points-based system it says will be fairer and more transparent but which unions fear will see millions work longer for a smaller retirement payout.
Particularly vexing was the proposal to impose the 64 "pivot age" that people would have to work until to qualify for a full pension -- two years beyond the official retirement age.
Contribute more, or work longer
On Friday, Macron said that for the pension system to remain viable as a growing number of retirees live ever longer, "either one has to contribute more, or one has to agree to work a little longer", while insisting he does not want to see pensions lowered.
The government says the "pivot age" would save five billion euros ($5.6 billion) by 2023 and some 11 billion euros by 2026.
Philippe said the concept of an "age of equilibrium" would remain part of the reform, though he did not spell out what this means.
The premier also announced there would be a conference, as demanded by union leaders, to study ways of financing the pension system, which must come up with proposals by the end of April.
If it succeeds, MPs will be able to work the resulting proposals into the draft pension reform bill the government hopes to introduce to parliament by February 17.
If it fails, the government will take the "measures necessary to achieve equilibrium" in the system by 2027, the prime minister warned.
On Day 38 of the strike, some were fed up.
"We have had enough," estate agent Christophe Delvallee, 65, told AFP at the Aulnay-sous-Bois train station outside Paris. "It has been a month and a half. These are people with many advantages and employment guaranteed for life, and who are making life difficult for the rest of us."
His daily 75-minute commute to work now takes up to 2.5 hours.
Commuting has become a daily headache for many, with train services and Paris metro lines again curtailed Saturday, and regional and inter-city train numbers slashed.
The Paris rail operator RATP said after Philippe's announcement Saturday that all metro and suburban trains will run on Sunday, though still offering only partial service. Most rail workers are aligned to the CGT.
The Paris Opera, which was to launch its official new season on Saturday, cancelled its performance of The Barber of Seville due to opera workers' continuing participation in the strike.
Like railway workers at the forefront of the strike action, opera staff enjoy early retirement benefits under their sectoral pension scheme, and are reluctant to give these up. The Paris Opera says it has lost 12.3 million euros ($13.7 million).
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)