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Thousands Lose Power Amid Protests In France

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's go to France now. A transport strike there over President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform plan is now in its 15th day. The government's trying to negotiate a truce with unions to get the trains running over the Christmas holiday. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, there's a whole lot more at stake here.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Unintelligible).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Thousands of people tried to pack into one of the few commuter trains running in Paris this week, but one union, the hard-line CGT, is taking its pressure tactics beyond the transport sector by cutting power to 150,000 customers. French Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne denounced their actions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELISABETH BORNE: (Through interpreter) It's grave what happened - tens of thousands of homes deprived of electricity. The power cuts are not targeted at a few businesses, as they said. In the city of Lyon, five clinics, a metro station and a firehouse were cut. This is far from normal and not what we expect from a public service.

BEARDSLEY: The head of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, defended his members in a television interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

PHILIPPE MARTINEZ: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Do you support this cutting of electricity," asked the interviewer. "Yes, I understand their anger," said Martinez. "But do you understand the anger of those who lost electricity," pushed the interviewer. "Of course," said Martinez, "but we're all in the same predicament."

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in French).

BEARDSLEY: CGT members led protest marches across the country this week. Protesters like Alain Dupont say Macron is trying to unravel everything they've worked hard to build.

ALAIN DUPONT: (Through interpreter) He wants to privatize retirement, health care and public services. We are trying to defend the French social model that he is trying to unravel.

BEARDSLEY: The French government is trying to work with the more moderate unions who support parts of its retirement plan. The CGT rejects it entirely. Founded 125 years ago, the CGT - or Confederation Generale du Travail - is France's oldest union. And even though its membership has shrunk over the last decade, it clearly still wields power.

The mayor of the southern city of Nice called the CGT's action sabotage and said he would sue after restaurants in the town's historic center were plunged into darkness. Benjamin Amar, head of the CGT's tactics team, defended their work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENJAMIN AMAR: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "No. We don't do this in every labor strike," he said, "but we're proud of it. What Robin Hood did wasn't exactly legal either. We've had enough."

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "SHADOWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.