As strike nears end, France asks who won what?

23rd November 2007, Comments 0 comments

22 November 2007, PARIS - Almost normal service resumed on the French railways Friday after a crippling nine-day strike, as opinions divided over whether its end marks a victory for the reform programme of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

22 November 2007

PARIS - Almost normal service resumed on the French railways Friday after a crippling nine-day strike, as opinions divided over whether its end marks a victory for the reform programme of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

For the first time since the start of last week, most Paris commuters enjoyed an untroubled trip to work, and nationwide the state rail company SNCF said the network will be fully operational by the weekend.

After the country's longest train strike since 1995, the government insisted that it had held firm on its central aim of increasing railway workers' retirement age in line with the rest of the population.

"I promised this reform, and I kept my word," Sarkozy said in an address Friday, a day before leaving on a state visit to China.

Raymond Soubie, Sarkozy's councillor on social affairs, said decrees promulgating the pension reform will be drawn up in about a month, after the conclusion of round-table talks between unions, management and government representatives.

These discussions, whose opening on Wednesday triggered the end of the strtike, will focus on pay-rises, top-up pension schemes and other accompanying measures.

For supporters of Sarkozy's six-month old government, the outcome marked an unequivocal triumph for the right-wing president.

Le Figaro newspaper said the president had proved he was not a "paper tiger" and that his determination to remedy the ills of French society had passed a ground-breaking first test.

"Everyone knows that the head of state has in store other earth-shaking changes. If the pension reform -- the mother of all reforms -- has persuaded opinion that things had to change in the country, it will have greatly served the designs of the president," the right-wing paper said.

"No winners, no losers: let us accept the phrase even though we know it's just one of those convenient expressions that have to be uttered at the end of a conflict so that no-one feels offended or fired by a spirit of revenge," said L'Eclair de Pyrenees regional daily.

But the mood was far from unanimous. For some commentators, Sarkozy may have won the end of the strike, but at too high a cost. For others, the mood of popular protest is far from being defused and future reforms can expect at least as big a response from the street.

To induce strikers to end their action, SNCF management put on the table a financial package worth some 90 million euros (133 million dollars) a year, a price which some thought unreasonably high -- especially as hardliners threaten to resume the strike if talks fail.

"What is the price that we will have to pay for reforming the 'special' pensions systems? And who is going to pick up the tab? The state? SNCF? Passengers, via higher ticket prices?" asked Christophe Barbier, editor of L'Express magazine.

"If Nicolas Sarkozy were triumphant, we'd know it. He's the kind that likes to congratulate himself. If he is discreet, it is because he knows that another player has entered the social battle -- the cost of living," said L'Est Republicain newspaper.

Successive opinion polls have shown that the French public's biggest worry is falling disposable incomes, and the president has promised new measures to boost household spending.

"Tensions are far, very far from subsiding," said La Nouvelle Republique, another regional daily, noting that students, state employees, magistrates and others are all campaigning with grievances of their own.

"If reform of the pensions systems was supposedly the easiest of reforms, our tomorrows look rather gloomier than we thought," it said.

AFP

Subject: French news

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