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Pension strikes cripple Paris, more travel woes ahead

PARIS (AP) — Paris commuters inched to work Monday through massive traffic jams as strikes against retirement plan changes halted trains and subways for a fifth straight day — with the prospect of a tougher day ahead.

French President Emmanuel Macron girded for one of the toughest weeks of his presidency as his government prepares to present a redesign of the convoluted French pension system. Macron sees melding 42 different retirement plans into one as delivering a more equitable, financially sustainable system. Unions view the move as an attack on the French way of life even though Macron's government is not expected to change the current retirement age of 62.

Citing safety risks, the SNCF national rail network warned travelers to stay home or use "alternative means of locomotion" Monday instead of thronging train platforms in hopes of getting one of the few available trains running.

The national road authority reported more than 600 kilometers (360 miles) of traffic problems at morning rush hour around the Paris region — up from 150 kilometers (90 miles) on an average day. Paris police girded for a huge pension protest march on Tuesday, similar to the one last Thursday when more than 800,000 people across France took part. Fearing possible violence on its fringes, police warned they would mobilize significant resources immediately to stop violence. All restaurants and shops along the march route were ordered closed, police said.

Air France, the national carrier, said more than 25% of its domestic traffic would be grounded Tuesday by the strike, along with more than 10% of its medium-haul flights. Long-haul trips were not to be affected. It said the French civil aviation authority had asked all airlines to cut back flights 20% on Tuesday at six airports, including Paris, Bordeaux and Marseille.

Only about a sixth of French trains were running Monday and international train lines also saw disruptions. Activists also blocked bus depots around Paris. Gabriella Micuci from the Paris suburb of Le Bourget walked several kilometers (miles) in a cold rain Monday and then squeezed into a packed subway on one of the two automated Metro lines that don't need drivers. Other commuters used shared bikes or electric scooters.

“I left home earlier than usual, I thought I was going to be able to catch an early train but not at all," Micuci told The Associated Press. “It’s a real catastrophe, people are becoming even more violent, they are pushing you.”

Fortified by the biggest nationwide demonstrations in years when the strike launched last Thursday, unions plan new protests on Tuesday and hope to keep up the pressure on Macron's government to back down

Macron summoned Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and other top officials Sunday night to strategize for a crucial week for his planned retirement reform. The prime minister will outline the government's plan on Wednesday, which is expected to encourage people to work longer. Currently some French workers can retire in their 50s.

The pension changes are central to Macron's vision of transforming the French economy. Government ministers say the current system is unfair and financially unsustainable, while unions say the reform undercuts worker rights and will force people to work longer for less.

Seeking to head off public anger, Macron asked veteran politician Jean-Paul Delevoyeto hold months of meetings with workers, employers and others to come up with pension recommendations. Delevoye said Monday the sessions would continue until early next year.

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