A gruelling French transport strike entered its third week Thursday, wearing out commuters and spoiling the Christmas holiday plans of thousands as the government and unions remained at odds over pension reform.

A series of meetings Wednesday failed to bring the two sides closer, though President Emmanuel Macron had indicated he was "willing to improve" his plan for forging a single, points-based system out of 42 existing schemes.

Unions, holding fresh talks with the government on Thursday evening, baulk in particular at a new "pivot age" of 64 for workers to earn a full pension -- two years beyond the official retirement age.

They are hoping for a repeat of 1995 when the government backed down on pension reform after three weeks of metro and rail stoppages just before Christmas.

An Ifop poll released Thursday found six out of 10 respondents oppose the "pivot age" and more than half have sympathy for the strike despite the daily transport misery brought to bear on millions.

Workers for the SNCF and RATP transport companies have downed tools in protest against the prospect of losing their preferential early retirement dispensation, causing severe disruptions to train, metro and bus services in Paris and other big cities that are set to continue for a 16th day Friday.

A march against a planned pensions overhaul in Nantes, western France, on Thursday.
A march against a planned pensions overhaul in Nantes, western France, on Thursday. AFP / Loic VENANCE

There will be no Christmas truce, unions have vowed, unless the overhaul is scrapped.

On Thursday, the SNCF said 59 percent of its high-speed TGV and inter-city trains will be cancelled for the two days before Christmas, forcing thousands of people change their travel dates or scramble for alternative transport.

It also said many long-distance TER trains connecting Paris to places like Dijon, Orleans and Troyes are full for the weekend, when many French people leave for their family holidays.

As attitudes appeared to harden, striking workers interrupted power supply to some 18,000 homes in southern France, including Perpignan and Narbonne, and 12,000 homes in the northern city of Beauvais, grid operator Enedis said.

Laurent Berger of the CFDT, France's biggest union, said "we're still very, very far from any agreement"
Laurent Berger of the CFDT, France's biggest union, said "we're still very, very far from any agreement" AFP / Thomas SAMSON

And protesters again staged rallies across France on Thursday, with several hundred marching from the Gare de Lyon in Paris.

The government has vowed it will press ahead with its reform, saying a single pension system will be fairer and more transparent, especially for women and low earners.

Unions claim the overhaul would effectively force millions of people to retire later or face curtailed payouts.

Even the moderate CFDT union, France's largest, has called the 64-year pivot age a "red line," though it backs Macron's push for a single pension scheme for all workers.

Valerie Pecresse, president of the Ile-de-France region encompassing Paris, called on transport operator RATP to fully reimburse commuters for the mayhem since the strike started on December 5.

"And don't try telling me that some lines still have some trains, because the truth is that for everyone, this minimal service is basically nothing," she told RTL radio.

Several universities have cancelled or postponed year-end exams since students cannot get to testing centres, and both the Paris and Garnier operas -- whose workers also benefit from an early retirement scheme -- have dropped dozens of performances.

The protest is also taking a heavy toll on businesses during one of the busiest periods of the year, with industry associations reporting turnover declines of 30 to 60 percent from a year earlier.

Junior Economy Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher on Friday urged people to patronise local businesses during the crucial holiday season, saying "it's time to give them a hand".

Pressure mounted on the government this week when it had to scramble to replace the official overseeing the pension negotiations. Jean-Paul Delevoye was forced to resign after it emerged he had failed to declare more than 120,000 euros of income from outside work.

He now faces an inquiry into the omissions on his asset statements and potentially unlawful remuneration while occupying a government post, the Paris prosecutor's office announced Thursday.