France braced for showdown Monday over axed holiday

13th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 15 (AFP) - Less than two weeks before a referendum on the EU constitution, the French government faces a major test to its authority Monday as millions look set to ignore its decision to scrap a national holiday in order to raise money for the elderly.

PARIS, May 15 (AFP) - Less than two weeks before a referendum on the EU constitution, the French government faces a major test to its authority Monday as millions look set to ignore its decision to scrap a national holiday in order to raise money for the elderly.  

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

But far from the public rallying round to produce the extra funds, the day is likely to be marked by chaos and confusion, with many businesses and services crippled by strikes and others working at reduced capacity as staff take the day off regardless.  

With the government of President Jacques Chirac in a tense campaign to promote a "yes" vote in the May 29 EU referendum, defiance of its "solidarity" plan reflects a mood of widespread discontent and the reluctance of much of the population to take lessons from their political elite.  

Polls showed that some 55 percent of the public plan to take Monday off despite the government's urgings, and travel agencies reported only a slight downturn in business compared to previous years.  

More worryingly for Chirac, the dispute over the holiday was being partly blamed for a spurt in the "no" campaign against the EU constitution, which rose to 54 percent in a poll for the Wanadoo internet provider Saturday.  

Written into the law a year ago, the abolition of Pentecost Monday was supposed to raise EUR 2 million (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.  

However the government faced two difficulties in trying to introduce the reform. First 2005 is a rare year in which two of the May holidays fall on a Sunday, which means there is no glut of days off and the public is therefore more reluctant to give up Pentecost Monday.  

At the same time the EU referendum campaign whipped up a climate of dissent which unions were happy to exploit in order to challenge the government's authority.  

All the main unions urged work stoppages to protest against the abolition of the holiday, though only the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC) called for a national strike. It described the day of solidarity as "forced labour."  

The extent of disruption to economic life Monday remained uncertain. Local transport in many towns and cities will be at a standstill though Paris should be relatively unaffected. Post offices are likely to be shut, as are many school classes.  

Some large businesses and local government departments have chosen to give staff the day off rather than risk a showdown. Many workers are taking an "RTT" day - one of the compensatory days off which they earn if they work more than a 35-hour week.  

The "day of solidarity" was widely seen as a fiasco in the national press Sunday, with blame equally shared between a government incapable of imposing its will and a public unwilling to rise to the challenge of generosity.  

"The shambles bears witness to the rise of a banal lack of public spirit, everyone shamelessly doing what they want to do regardless of what the law says," lamented Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.  

"By failing to consult or to listen, the government has created a situation in which a law of the republic, newly voted, is straightaway ignored .... This is a bad augury," said the left-leaning Le Monde.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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