'Black Thursday' strikes to put Sarkozy to the test
16 October 2007, PARIS (AFP) - France is bracing for a major transport strike on Thursday that will test President Nicolas Sarkozy's resolve to push through pension reform and confront unions who say worker benefits are under attack.
16 October 2007
PARIS (AFP) - France is bracing for a major transport strike on Thursday that will test President Nicolas Sarkozy's resolve to push through pension reform and confront unions who say worker benefits are under attack.
Unions of the state-owned SNCF rail company, the RATP Paris metro service and power utilities EDF and GDF have called for the one-day strike to protest plans to scrap pension privileges allowing some workers to retire as early as 50.
Delays are also expected at Paris airports, highway toll booths and in the urban transport services in more than 20 cities during the strike, dubbed "Black Thursday", according to France's biggest union, the CGT.
"We indeed expect there to be a very, very strong mobilisation" for the strike on Thursday, said presidential spokesman David Martinon. "We expect there to be major disruptions."
"There should be practically no trains, buses or metro," warned Employment Minister Xavier Bertrand.
It was one month ago Thursday that Sarkozy unveiled plans to overhaul the pensions benefits enjoyed by half a million public employees, mostly railway workers, metro service operators and utility employees.
Some 1.1 million people currently draw pensions under the scheme, funded by contributions from 500,000 workers.
Currently the state bails out the "special" pensions fund to the tune of some five billion euros (6.9 billion dollars) a year, because contributions from workers fall far short of payments.
A previous attempt to reform the so-called "special regimes" in 1995 was abandoned after three weeks of strikes and mass protests, and the system was left untouched by a subsequent pension reform in 2003.
Unions have said that the one-day strike order could be extended with labour organisations at SNCF threatening to keep up the protest "if no satisfying response is provided" on Thursday.
Civil servants at the postal services and the national employment offices are also planning to join in the work stoppage.
Sarkozy, who took office five months ago, has said he will not back down from his campaign promise to scrap the special pensions, arguing that the benefits enjoyed by this category of workers must be brought in line with those of other public sector employees.
"I know perfectly well that next week will be a difficult week but I was elected precisely to confront difficult issues," Sarkozy said last week.
Workers who contribute to the special pension regime can retire after 37.5 years, instead of 40 years for others.
Opinion polls show a majority of the French support Sarkozy's plan to scrap the special pension system which is increasingly seen as unfair.
But Didier Le Reste, the leader the CGT union representing rail workers shot back, saying his members "were fed up with being stigmatised as a privileged group."
He said rail workers agree to smaller pensions totalling less than 1,500 euros per month (2,100 dollars) in exchange for the prospect of retiring at 55 or 50.
While the unions have said they are willing to negotiate, they accuse the government of trying to railroad them into a speedy agreement.
Meanwhile, unions representing teachers are meeting on Monday to decide whether to stage protest action next month, accusing Sarkozy of trying to "break" the public service.
Sarkozy has also rolled out plans to reduce the size of the public service through attrition and buyouts.
Subject: French news