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19 Dec

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France braces for mass protests on 13th day of pension-reform strike

French workers take to the streets anew Tuesday on the 13th day of a transport strike that has exasperated commuters, hit business turnover, and threatened the holiday plans of thousands a week before Christmas.

With just days left to avert transport chaos for many who have already bought their tickets for the festive break, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Monday invited unions and employers’ organisations to “working meetings” Wednesday.

These sessions on the government’s plan to merge 42 existing pension schemes into one would be followed by a joint meeting on Thursday, he said.

Philippe also offered to discuss the reform with bosses of rail operator SNCF and the RATP public transport agency, whose workers are striking over a proposal to take away their special early retirement dispensation.

Train, metro, bus and tram transport will again hobble commuters in Paris and other big cities on Tuesday.

Regional and international trains and domestic flights will also be affected as workers hold a third day of countrywide pickets against the plan for a new, points-based pension system.

The plan controversially includes a proposed “pivot age” of 64 at which people would qualify for a full pension, even if the legal retirement age remains 62.

French officials have said they are willing to negotiate these and other points of contention, which already brought some 800,000 angry workers onto the streets on December 5 and about half that the following week – the biggest show of strength in years by France’s militant unions.

Strike organisers are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when they forced a centre-right government to back down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail strikes just before Christmas.

Pension chief resigns

On Monday, the conflict was complicated further by the resignation of Jean-Paul Delevoye, appointed by President Emmanuel Macron to oversee the pension reform, over a scandal about undeclared private sector payments while he was earning a government salary.

Unions have vowed to continue their labour action until Macron drops his pension plan, claiming that millions would have to delay their retirement.

Macron has expressed “solidarity” with the millions affected by the strike but has shown no sign of backing down on what he has called “a historic reform”.

But Laurent Berger, head of France’s largest union, the moderate CFDT, said the government was “making a huge mistake in terms of social justice, and a huge political mistake” with the 64-year retirement age.

His union otherwise backs the plan for a single pension system.

The standoff has meant daily misery for millions of commuters, and threatens the holiday plans of many.

SNCF has already warned that unless the strike ends soon, it will not have time to get service back to normal by December 25.

‘Unacceptable’

The rail operator is due to announce on Tuesday which trains, for which tickets have already been booked, it would be able to guarantee over the holiday period.

Polling agency Ifop, in a survey published by Le Figaro newspaper, found that 55 percent of respondents would find the continuation of the strike over the Christmas holidays “unacceptable”.

Several universities, including the Sorbonne in Paris, said Monday they had cancelled or postponed year-end exams because students would not be able to show up.

With air traffic controllers joining Tuesday’s strike, the DGAC civil aviation authority asked airlines to cut their programmed flights by a fifth Tuesday to and from Orly airport outside Paris—the second biggest in France.

Air France subsequently announced it expected to operate all planned long-haul flights, and almost 80 percent of domestic flights to and from Orly.

“Last-minute delays and cancellations cannot be excluded,” added the airline’s website.

Retailers, hotel owners and restaurateurs worried for their bottom line as the strike keeps custom away.

Sectoral bodies said turnover dropped between 25 and 60 percent from a year earlier, in the run-up to Christmas—when most businesses expect to be at their busiest.

Temperatures are expected to be more than 1.1C above pre-industrial average

A hydrologist checks cracks in the dried up municipal dam in the drought-stricken town of Graaff-Reinet, South Africa, in November 2019.

A hydrologist checks cracks in the dried up municipal dam in the drought-stricken town of Graaff-Reinet, South Africa, in November 2019. Photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Next year is likely to be another of the hottest on record, with global temperatures forecast to be more than 1.1C above the pre-industrial average, according to estimates from the Met Office.

The forecast for 2020 is based on observations of trends over recent years that have seen a series of years more than 1C above pre-industrial levels, and bearing what meteorologists said was the “clear fingerprint” of human-induced global heating.

That trend is likely to continue in 2020, the Met Office predicted on Thursday, barring unforeseeable events such as a major volcanic eruption, which would have a cooling effect from the dust thrown into the atmosphere.

Next year is also unlikely to see a strong natural warming event, with no El Niño predicted. El Niño is the weather system in the Pacific that can result in unusually high temperatures, as it did in 1998, which until 2005 held the crown of the warmest year since records began in 1850. For years, that fuelled false claims from some quarters that climate science was wrong and global heating was not occurring.

The hottest year on record currently is 2016, when there was an El Niño effect, and the years since have all been close to the record.

“Natural events, such as El Niño-induced warming in the Pacific, influence the climate system,” said Prof Adam Scaife, head of long-range prediction at the Met Office. “In the absence of El Niño, this forecast gives a clear picture of the strongest factor causing temperatures to rise: greenhouse gas emissions.”

If the forecast is correct, the world will come even closer to the brink of climate breakdown next year. Scientists have warned that warming of more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels would have damaging effects on the world’s climate.

The first year in which temperatures were certified to be more than 1C above the average from 1850 to 1900 was 2015, so the rate of change has been rapid. If current trends continue, we could breach the 1.5C threshold within two decades.

Greenhouse gas emissions show little sign of abating, however: research published during the UN climate talks earlier this month showed that annual carbon emissions were now 4% higher than they were in 2015, when the historic Paris agreement on climate change was signed.

The Met Office used the same methods last year to forecast 2019 temperatures, and observations this year show that temperatures tracked its central estimate closely. Its forecast for 2020 is for an increase in global average temperature of between 0.99C and 1.23C, with a central estimate of 1.11C.

Temperature rises have been uneven across the globe, with the Arctic heating far faster than the average. Greenland ice is melting seven times faster than in the 1990s, according to research.

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