Cancelled French holiday met by strikes and absenteeism

16th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 16 (AFP) - Millions of French people ignored a government call to do an extra day's work Monday in order to raise money for the elderly, preferring instead to observe their traditional Pentecost bank holiday.

PARIS, May 16 (AFP) - Millions of French people ignored a government call to do an extra day's work Monday in order to raise money for the elderly, preferring instead to observe their traditional Pentecost bank holiday.  

Public transport was at a standstill in nearly a hundred towns and cities, post offices and town halls were closed, and schools offered skeleton service, as polls showed more than half the country taking the day off in defiance of official urging.  

Pentecost or Whit Monday - a holiday for French workers since the late 19th century - was designated an annual "day of solidarity" following a heat wave in 2003 which killed an estimated 15,000 mainly old people.  

But far from the public rallying round to produce the extra funds, more than two-thirds of the population said they opposed the abolition of the holiday and unions took advantage of the mood of contention to call for a day of strikes and stoppages.  

The extent of Monday's disruption varied from place to place. In Paris the metro and buses operated normally, as did the national railway system. But across the country schools were more than half empty as a strike by teachers' unions coincided with a call from the main parents' group to keep children from classes.  

The government of President Jacques Chirac warned against concluding too hastily that the day was a failure, pointing out that employees who took statutory leave were treating Pentecost as a normal working day.  

"The polls show that only 14 percent of people are actually on strike. Most of those who are not working are just exercising their normal right to take a day off, and they'll give another one up later in the year," said government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope.  

"Everyone understands that we need this day of solidarity in order to secure the permanent financing of our care of the elderly. Everyone is concerned by this," he told Europe 1 radio.  

But union leaders accused the government of forcing the public to work for no pay, and said money for the aged should come out of general taxation.  

"We are in a period of popular discontent over employment and pay, and the Pentecost issue is feeding the unhappiness. People do not want (to work) this Pentecost. When a law isn't working it has to be changed," said Jean-Claude Mailly of the Force Ouvriere union.  

With Chirac's government in a closely-fought campaign to promote the "yes" vote in the May 29 referendum on the EU constitution, defiance of its "solidarity" plan reflected a mood of widespread discontent and a reluctance to take lessons from the political elite.  

Worryingly for the president, the dispute was being partly blamed for a spurt in the "no" campaign against the EU constitution, which rose to 54 percent Saturday in a poll for the Internet provider Wanadoo.  

Written into the law a year ago, the abolition of Pentecost Monday was supposed to raise EUR 2 billion (USD 2.5 billion) annually for a special fund for the aged and handicapped - whose vulnerability had been lethally exposed during the heat wave of the previous August.  

Few voices were raised against the idea at the time, not least because France has three other national holidays in May - Workers' Day on May 1, the Feast of the Ascension and May 8 for Victory in Europe - and some years the country grinds to a near halt.  

Newspapers Monday lamented the lack of civic spirit that drove people to follow their own devices rather than contribute to the common good.  

"France has preferred to take refuge in selfishness and individualism rather than show national solidarity .... The law has barely been voted by parliament when it is not just contested but generally held to be null and void," said Le Figaro.  

"This resounding flop will have another undesirable effect for the government: a rise in 'no' votes in the EU referendum," said the financial daily La Tribune.


Subject: French News

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